When the Bush administration wants to cook up some environmental credibility, it cites efforts underway to slash diesel emissions by requiring trucking companies to switch to cleaner engines. But the untold story is that it may be the taxpayers -- not the polluters -- who end up footing much of the bill.
The trucking industry has long been a leading opponent of federal clean-air regulations, and since 1993 it has had a relentless advocate in Rep. Mac Collins, R-Ga., former owner of Collins Trucking Co. -- a business that is now run by the representative's family and that continues to pay him $21,600 a year as an advisor. U.S. EPA regulations will require truck fleets to switch to cleaner-burning diesel engines by 2007, and Collins, who's running for the Senate this year, wants tax breaks to help companies like his defray the cost.
Claiming that the diesel regulations would financially hamstring the industry, 19 GOP members of the House, including Collins, recently asked the General Accounting Office -- the watchdog arm of Congress responsible for scrutinizing the activities of federal agencies -- to examine the diesel regulations.
The regs were proposed by the EPA in 2000 and put in place by the Clinton administration just before it left office in 2001. Just days later, the new Bush administration froze the regulations to give it time to determine whether their health benefits justified their costs to the American economy.
Satisfied that they did -- with overwhelming scientific data to prove it -- the Bush EPA then reinstated the Clinton rules with much tough-guy fanfare.
It's hard to argue with the numbers: Cleaner diesel engines will prevent an estimated 8,300 deaths from respiratory disease per year, according to EPA research, and result in 17,600 fewer cases of acute bronchitis and 360,000 fewer asthma attacks in kids.
Today, the administration's move to "aggressively tackle" diesel emissions is advertised as one of President Bush's top environmental accomplishments on his 2004 campaign Web site.
The trucking industry didn't take well to the news that the diesel regs were going forward, but it may still get off the hook. Officials in the Bush EPA and in the GAO seem inclined to help the industry keep on truckin' happily along -- free of financial responsibility for the deadly pollution it creates.
The GAO report [PDF] on the diesel regulations, released on March 11, "openly endorses recommendations truckers have been making for years and explicitly parrots the industry's arguments behind these recommendations," said Frank O'Donnell, executive director of Clean Air Trust. The report not only recommends that the agency consider "economic incentives" to help industry comply, but suggests that the EPA failed to give due consideration to industry concerns in drafting the regulations.
Even the Bush administration found this allegation absurd. Assistant EPA administrator for air and radiation, Jeffrey Holmstead, wrote an indignant letter to the GAO that challenged the report's integrity and accuracy and implied that it was biased in favor of the trucking industry: "[T]he report simply appears to accept the views of one set of stakeholders ... it leaves the reader with the impression that challenges are overly daunting and that industry is unable to address them. This is simply wrong," he wrote.
Holmstead took particular umbrage at the report's implication that the EPA did not adequately consider industry concerns: "Especially troubling are the suggestions in the report that the agency failed to engage the trucking industry in the 2007 rulemaking process. ... I personally take the agency's responsibility to engage stakeholders very seriously."
The lead author of the GAO report, John Stephenson, was not available for comment.
Soon after the report was released, Holmstead accompanied EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt to a trucking industry meeting titled "Diesel Engine Emissions Summit II" in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to address the report's findings and assure the industry that the EPA is on its team.
"I am prepared to say, 'Let's work together,'" Leavitt announced to a round of applause from the audience of more than 900 industry representatives. He stressed that he is amenable to the idea of tax breaks to help trucking companies comply with the rules, saying it's the government's job to give businesses the incentive "to do the right thing," and that the EPA is "dependent on all of you to figure out how to do that."
The EPA, though, does not typically ask taxpayers to shoulder the costs industry incurs when meeting new pollution standards. The health benefits of the diesel regs are supposed to justify their costs, and if the financial burden is heavy for industry, the costs get passed along to consumers anyway.
According to John Millett, an EPA spokesperson, the diesel emissions-reduction technology that will be required on new trucks by 2007 is expected to raise the cost of a truck by $1,200 to $1,900 -- an increase of less than 1 percent on the truck's total cost of between $150,000 to $200,000.
But the costs will be markedly higher -- between $5,000 and $10,000 per truck, according to Glen Kedzie, environmental counsel to the American Trucking Associations. "Already the trucking industry is buying up trucks in the pre-2007 fleet so they don't have to face the additional costs that they expect will be posed by the post-2007 fleet," he said.
Environmentalists say the trucking industry's fears are grossly exaggerated. But the larger point, they say, is that taxpayers shouldn't be forced to underwrite the costs, no matter what they are. A precedent like that would spark similar demands from every other regulated industry, eventually rendering pollution controls impracticable.
Still, Leavitt and Holmstead seem to see merit in abandoning the "polluter pays" principle. So concerned are they with the trucking industry's financial health that they've invited Collins to help write legislation that will line his own pockets: At the industry meeting last month, Holmstead vowed to work with the Georgia representative to develop financial incentives to soften any blow to the trucking industry from the diesel regulations.
Block the Vote
Asserting that he was confronting "truly life-and-death matters," Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., announced last week that as ranking member of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works he would exercise his powers to put a hold on four high-level appointments to the U.S. EPA.
"I'm sorry it has come to this sad state, but I believe I am left with no other recourse," he proclaimed dramatically in a statement to the committee.
It wasn't the appointments themselves that he believed posed mortal dangers -- in fact, Jeffords had just voted in favor of sending the nominations to the full Senate. Rather, the Vermont senator was taking the nominees hostage in order to exact a ransom from the EPA in the form of documents he has unsuccessfully requested over the last three years about the agency's controversial policies.
Between May 2001, when Jeffords defected from the GOP, and January 2004, he made 12 formal requests for documents from the EPA on issues ranging from President Bush's much-criticized mercury proposal to global-warming research to rollbacks of new source-review regulations under the Clean Air Act.
Jeffords believes the documents will help paint a more complete picture of what went on within the administration prior to significant environmental policy changes -- in particular, changes on mercury and new-source review. And he believes the files could be fodder for people fighting those changes. "We think these documents could result in better protections for public health than the rules provide now," said Chris Miller, a minority staffer at the EPW Committee.
Until now, Jeffords' requests have been mostly or totally ignored by the EPA. "I am afraid this is yet another example of how the Bush administration acts in secrecy," Jeffords told the committee. "I have bent over backwards to try to accommodate the EPA, but my patience is now worn out."
So cold has the EPA's shoulder been, in fact, that the EPW Committee's chairman, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla. -- a man who once compared the EPA to the Gestapo -- has not only refrained from criticizing Jeffords for playing hardball but has supported him. In a March 4 letter to EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt, Inhofe joined Jeffords in asking that the EPA comply with Jeffords' requests, noting that "the agency is obligated to respond to requests from [both] the chair and ranking member."
Though on previous occasions Jeffords has made and withdrawn threats to interrupt Senate business in order to extract his requested documents (he threatened to filibuster Leavitt's own nomination, for example), word is that this time he means business.
"Jeffords' hold is firm," said Miller. "We fully expect to get everything that we have requested."
The EPA seems to recognize that this is not a boy-who-cried-wolf scenario. Spokesperson Cynthia Bergman insists that the agency is taking Jeffords' request seriously: "We're doing everything we can to review his request and get the problem resolved swiftly," she told Muckraker.
Jeffords has no particular objections to any of the nominees, said Miller.
But one of the four nominees-in-waiting, Ann Klee, in line to serve as general counsel to Leavitt, has particularly rankled enviros.
Klee formerly served as a senior advisor to Sen. Dirk Kempthorne, R-Idaho, chair of the EPW's Drinking Water, Fisheries, and Wildlife Subcommittee, with whom she worked on efforts to significantly rewrite the Endangered Species Act -- much to the dismay of the environmental community. In 1997, she joined the majority staff of the EPW Committee and eventually rose to become its chief counsel.
But enviros' strongest objections to Klee's work stem from her three years as general counsel to Interior Secretary Gale Norton.
Klee has been charged with editing out critical scientific data from DOI reports on the environmental impacts of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Also, according to Sharon Buccino, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, Klee was one of the top DOI staffers involved in Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force, and was among the select participants in clandestine meetings between White House and administration officials and energy-industry representatives. NRDC sought evidence of such meetings under the Freedom of Information Act and obtained calendar records from Klee showing that she had a number of meetings with energy-industry executives and lobbyists, and comparatively few with members of the environmental community.
"Ann Klee is one of the key decision makers within the department on energy issues. The meetings [on her calendar] reflect an agenda for promoting a single use of the land -- energy development," said Buccino.
Former colleagues, in contrast, have high praise for Klee. "My impression was that Klee is a very capable lawyer," said Jo-Ellen Darcy, who worked with her as an EPW Committee staffer.
"Ann Klee was an outstanding leader at the Department of the Interior," DOI assistant secretary Lynn Scarlett told Muckraker. "Her knowledge of the Endangered Species Act, among many other issues, is unparalleled."
But given environmentalists' vehement objections to DOI's recent efforts related to endangered species and other environmental matters, it's safe to say that Klee is not on the green team. She seems likely to go with the flow at the Bush EPA.
So as far as enviros are concerned, Klee is better off in bureaucratic limbo than in the agency charged with protecting the nation's environmental health. The Jeffords case may be the first in which EPA intransigence proves to be a boon to environmentalists.