A meaner, greener EPA

For three years, the Bush administration and the power industry have been happily entangled. Now it's time for some election-year damage control -- courtesy of the EPA.

By Amanda Griscom
Published February 6, 2004 4:41AM (UTC)
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This election year, U.S. EPA chief Mike Leavitt is playing the part of a Clean Air Act tough guy -- for the time being, at least.

For three years, the Bush administration and the power industry have been happily entangled in a session of mutual back-scratching -- utilities have been generous contributors to Bush and his Republican cohorts, and the administration has conspicuously refrained from filing a single lawsuit against an over-polluting power plant. But last month Leavitt stirred things up by taking a no-more-Mr.-Nice-Guy stance with utilities; he announced that the administration would take legal action against violators of the Clean Air Act's New Source Review rule. Last week, right on cue, the Justice Department slapped a lawsuit on a Kentucky power co-op for violating the NSR; the co-op had expanded two of its coal-burning plants without installing the required antipollution equipment.


Enviros can be forgiven for greeting this newfound green zealotry with skepticism. The Bush administration has consistently echoed industry complaints that the NSR is busting the utilities' purse strings, and last summer the EPA approved rule changes that would make it easier for power plants to boost production while avoiding pricey pollution-scrubbing technology. On Nov. 5 of last year, the day before Leavitt stepped into office, the EPA's top enforcement official revealed plans to shutter backlogged investigations of 50 or more power plants and possibly scrap 13 other NSR cases that the Justice Department had been asked by the Clinton administration to pursue.

The Bush administration started singing a slightly different tune only after a federal appeals court on Christmas Eve sided with a number of states and environmental groups and temporarily blocked the NSR overhaul. Leavitt's response was contradictory: He appealed the court's ruling, but publicly made a show of pledging to enforce the stronger NSR regulations until the court made its final decision.

To make good on that pledge, the Bush administration undertook prosecution of the East Kentucky Power Cooperative. Skeptics point out that the Kentucky utility is a co-op, and since co-ops don't belong to the utility industry's most powerful lobbying arm, the Edison Electric Institute, they are virtually impotent in the political arena. Moreover, Kentucky Power is located in a solidly Republican state, so this case is not likely to cost Bush any electoral votes.


"The big question is, why choose this Kentucky co-op?" asked Kevin Curtis, vice president of public affairs for the National Environmental Trust. "First off, this is a very dirty co-op that would be in violation of even their new weaker rules. It would have been a much bigger statement if the administration had gone after any one of the 70 cases they dropped in November. This list includes a number of large, politically powerful utilities that are in clear violation of the existing NSR rules, such as the American Electric Power plant in Ohio. It seems the EPA simply isn't willing to take that political risk."

Chris Miller, a senior staffer for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said the agency had in the past estimated that 70 percent of the utility industry was not complying with NSR rules. "So the question is just how many of the mega-polluters the EPA decides to bring to justice." Hitting one polluter here or there, said Miller, by no means ensures that the agency has a sound policy that it's willing to enforce across the board.

Curtis concludes that the administration is merely trying to construct an image of a greener, meaner election-year EPA. "Simply put, [the Kentucky Power case] appears to be part of a larger PR initiative to try to do damage control on Bush's environmental image now that the heat is on from the primaries," he said. The same week the suit was announced, the administration unveiled with great fanfare funding increases for environmental projects in a number of swing states, including a clean-bus initiative in Pennsylvania, cleanups of the Great Lakes, a salmon restoration project in the Northwest, and Everglades conservation in Florida.


When Muckraker asked the Department of Justice how many additional NSR cases the administration planned to pursue, spokesperson Blaine Rethmeier said that for now Kentucky Power was it -- there aren't likely to be more actions anytime soon. "We have limited resources," he explained. "At the moment, we've got eight backlogged cases [from the Clinton administration] that we are still litigating. It takes a long time to move these cases forward."

Sylvia Lowrance, former head of enforcement at the EPA, warned against losing sight of the big picture. "The EPA is still in court supporting a rule that undercuts the cases [against NSR violators] -- and the mere filing of one or two cases won't overturn that fact," she said. "We're talking about seriously mixed messages, here. Then again, it's an election year. Strange things happen in an election year."


Isn't it ironic
Oh, the irony. The same week Fortune magazine released a special "Climate Collapse" issue warning its double-starched readers of "growing evidence" that "abrupt climate change may well occur in the not-too-distant future," Republican leaders in the U.S. Senate have been attempting yet again to push through an energy bill that would only intensify the threat.

In late January, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., announced that he would be "working closely with House leadership to see what steps we can take to get the last few votes we need for final passage." Soaring gasoline and home-heating costs as well as threats of blackouts due to a deep freeze in the Northeast have fueled Domenici's argument that it's time to pass the bill and step up energy production.

But worries about the federal deficit have changed the budgetary climate, so to speak, and could foul up his plan. The energy bill originally proposed by the White House would have cost $18 billion, but after Domenici larded it up with additional tax incentives and subsidies in an effort to buy as many votes as possible, the cost expanded to $31 billion. "There have been growing nationwide concerns about America's ballooning deficit, intensified by the primaries," said Bill Wicker, Democratic spokesperson for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, "and you can bet Karl Rove is putting pressure on senators not to make [spending commitments] that add fuel to the fire."


Discontent on this front is so pronounced that one senator who formerly backed the energy bill, John Ensign, R-Nev., recently rescinded his support on the grounds that the legislation was loaded with too much fat. That puts the bill three votes shy of passage -- three votes that won't be easy to come by.

Domenici promised on Tuesday to trim significant fat from the bill. It may be that his newfound parsimony will attract a few votes, but then he may lose some that were purchased with pork.

"Basically it will take very delicate surgery on the part of the Republicans to try and keep this thing alive," said Wicker. "Of course, they are twisting and turning in the wind, trying to scrape together deals to get three more votes, but based on all the inside information we've gotten, nobody seems willing to budge."


Domenici also proposed dropping a provision of the bill that would grant liability relief to manufacturers of the gasoline additive MTBE -- a move that seriously irked Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, whose home state is the top producer of the additive.

According to the Congress Daily newsletter, a source in Domenici's office admitted that the MTBE move was part of an exit strategy to ensure that if the energy bill doesn't pass on its own, it can be attached as an amendment to must-pass transportation legislation. This "highway bill," which funnels money throughout the country for highway development and other popular projects, has overwhelming bipartisan support -- so much support that it could include major components of the energy bill and still make it through the Senate.

But in a strange twist, the senator most resistant to this idea is James Inhofe, R-Okla., the notoriously anti-environment chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee -- and the man ushering the transportation bill through the Senate. This week, Inhofe publicly rejected the idea of attaching the energy bill to the highway legislation, warning, "I really don't want to do that. I don't want to have any non-germane amendments or parts of the energy bill."

Thus, a senator who has called global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people" may, by putting a final roadblock in the path of the energy bill, do more than any of his Republican colleagues to prevent it.


Oh, the irony.

Exxon and on and on
ExxonMobil and its predecessor companies stretching back to Standard Oil were responsible for a whopping 5 percent of the world's total carbon dioxide emissions between 1882 and 2002, thanks to the companies' operations and the burning of their products, according to a recent study put out by the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies and Friends of the Earth International.

The report exhorted Exxon shareholders to put pressure on the company to begin more aggressively developing its clean-energy portfolio and streamlining its operations. "There has already been some successful action by shareholders to change the direction of the company, and now we are providing them with more concrete and incontrovertible evidence to step up these actions," said Jon Sohn, senior policy analyst at FoE. "The report exposes the financial repercussions related to liability that will occur down the line if the company does not clean up its act. Just as the tobacco industry suffered economic losses from [cancer-related] liability, [so] the oil industry faces the same financial risks."

According to Sohn, fast-improving techniques in climate modeling make it possible to devise precise climate-impact statements and measure a particular company's liability. "The models for climate change are becoming rapidly more sophisticated," he said. "We are now finally able to determine very specifically the causal relationship between changes in global climate and manmade emissions, and then further pin it down to specific companies and their carbon contribution."


This is, indeed, the first time that the contribution of one company to global climate change has been calculated. Friends of the Earth says its new formula for developing corporate "climate footprint statements" will be used for a series of campaigns against other energy companies in the future. FoE should be applauded for boiling the vast and ambiguous threat of climate change down to the brass tacks, translating it into the kind of language that corporate America can understand.

Muck it up

Here at Muckraker, we always try to keep our eyes peeled and our ears to the ground (a real physiognomic challenge). The more sources we have, the better -- so if you are a fellow lantern-bearer in the dark caverns of the Bush administration's environmental policy, let us know. We welcome rumors, tips, whistleblowing, insider info, top-secret documents, or other useful tidbits on developments in environmental policy and the people behind them. Please send 'em along to muckraker@gristmagazine.com.

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Amanda Griscom

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2004 Elections