WASHINGTON -- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman proposed sweeping changes Thursday in the regulation of power plant pollution that would replace five of the government's toughest programs with a single, flexible approach favored by utilities.
Whitman outlined a plan for cleaning up major components of power plant smog that represents a significant departure from the EPA's traditional regulatory dictums. She called for a major expansion of pollution credit trading, which, up to now, has had varying success.
Under the new plan, the EPA would scrap some of the most stringent measures devised by the agency to deal with power plant emissions. One provision to be set aside aims to cut harmful mercury emissions; another is meant to reduce emissions from Midwestern power plants by 85 percent; another is designed to restore visibility at national parks.
Especially unpopular with industry, one measure, known as new source review, requires the installation of advanced pollution controls whenever power plants are expanded or modified. It too would be phased out.
"New source review is certainly one of those regulatory aspects that would no longer be necessary," Whitman told Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H., at the hearing by the Environment and Public Works Committee. "All of those (programs) could be aligned into one regulatory process" that she said would work better than existing rules.
Whitman's comments offer the first peek into the administration's plans for cleaning some of the dirtiest polluters left in the nation. Debate over the administration's clean-air approach has shifted to Congress as it considers whether to revise the national Clean Air Act.
The magnitude of the proposed revisions caught environmentalists by surprise, but buoyed industry representatives who say existing controls are costly and inefficient.
"She has raised an appalling prospect of junking virtually every rule and strategy to deal with emissions of electric companies in return for some vague industry-sought plan for an emissions trading scheme," said Frank O'Donnell, executive director of the Clean Air Trust, an environmental advocacy group. "If they go forward with this, it means a wholesale fight over the Clean Air Act in Congress."
After the hearing, Whitman stressed that the overall goal is to clean the air more efficiently than current rules do. Although the administration has not yet released a so-called multi-pollutant cleanup strategy, Whitman contended that collapsing several regulations into one far-reaching approach would be easier for regulators and industry to manage.
"What we're looking for is targets under this legislation that significantly clean up the air beyond what our current regulatory, statutory requirements would do," Whitman said. She added that new source review, for example, "could potentially be no longer necessary if you have the right kind of targets set in a multi-emissions bill. We have to wait and see where the targets are set," Whitman said.
Utilities have lobbied Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force to prevent the EPA from aggressively enforcing the new source review regulation. Industry and administration officials say the provision is onerous and prevents plant upgrades, although EPA officials say it is a key tool to forcing dirty, old plants to cut emissions by up to 95 percent.
During the Clinton administration, federal officials charged that 32 coal-fired power plants in several Southern and Midwestern states ignored a requirement that companies install advanced emissions controls when their plants were upgraded. The government reached settlement with three utilities, but a provision in the Bush administration's energy plan stalled those enforcement actions pending a review of power plant controls.
C. Boyden Gray, attorney for the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council and former White House Counsel for the first President Bush in the 1980s, praised the administration's proposal. He said major utility companies he represents, including Southern Co., Duke Energy Co. and the Tennessee Valley Authority, could clean up for with greater flexibility and less cost under the plan outlined by Whitman.
"To put everything in a market-incentives basis is a great step. It would be a real breakthrough and a plus for the business community," Gray said.
The Bush administration's power plant strategy was aired before the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, which is chaired by Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vermont, whose dramatic departure from the GOP threw control of the Senate to the Democrats. Jeffords is proposing legislation, different from the administration's approach, that would control four power plant pollutants, including the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, an approach rejected by the Bush administration.
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