News Articles

The Environmental Protection Agency issued a new, optimistic assessment of the benefits of President Bush's anti-air-pollution bill yesterday and disputed claims that it had intentionally hidden data showing that a competing Senate plan would provide greater long-term public health benefits at only a slightly higher cost.

Administration officials predicted that Bush's "Clear Skies" proposal, now languishing in a Senate subcommittee, will win passage this year despite Congress's preoccupation with taxes, Medicare and other pressing issues.

"Given the number of legislative days left, it's a challenge," said Jeffrey R. Holmstead, assistant EPA administrator for air and radiation. "But the White House is working hard, and we remain confident."

The Clear Skies Act calls for reducing three pollutants emitted by power plants over the next several years. Some environmental groups have criticized it, saying the existing Clean Air Act, if vigorously enforced, would do a better job of controlling harmful emissions. Senators have offered two competing bills. One, by Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), would provide health benefits superior to those envisioned under Clear Skies and would achieve reductions more rapidly, according to an EPA internal analysis.

The new assessment, released yesterday at an EPA news conference, used "modeling" assumptions different than those employed in the initial analysis last year, Holmstead said. The assumptions take into account new state regulations, 2000 census data, more recent air-quality data and new economic information from the power industry, he said.

Holmstead acknowledged that the new model would show the same proportionate increase in benefits for the competing Senate plans as it did for Clear Skies, but "we think this proposal [Clear Skies] is far superior from a public policy perspective." That's because Clear Skies goes beyond the simple formulation that cleaner air results from tighter controls on emissions, Holmstead said. Clear Skies takes into account the economic and security effects of emissions reductions, he said. "We look at energy security and energy diversity," Holmstead said. If emission controls are too tight, power companies may have to switch from coal to natural gas, which burns more cleanly but also drives up the costs of heating homes and other consumer needs. With Clear Skies, by contrast, "you can achieve all these benefits without increasing reliance on natural gas," Holmstead said.

He denied a Washington Post report Tuesday that the EPA had withheld information from its earlier analysis showing that the Carper bill would achieve greater reductions than would Clear Skies at only a marginal increase in retail prices. Holmstead did not address the Post report on the EPA's failure to provide Carper with data showing that his bill yielded substantially greater health benefits than Clear Skies.

The new analysis showed that Clear Skies by 2020 would provide $ 110 billion annually in health benefits through power plant reductions in sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury emissions. The program would cost $ 6.3 billion per year by 2020. These findings projected a greater benefit than did the 2002 EPA analysis. Clear Skies has no carbon dioxide emissions control plan, a major feature of the two Senate alternatives.

The administration and its industry allies are lobbying aggressively for Clear Skies, with Bush and congressional leaders meeting periodically to drum up support in Congress.

The Edison Electric Institute, which represents producers of 70 percent of the nation's electrical power, is organizing grass-roots lobbying in key states and plans to bring utility company executives from across the country to meet with lawmakers once committee action begins. In a June 10 e-mail, EEI President Thomas Kuhn outlined plans for an industry outreach to utility employees, retirees and shareholders to build support for Clear Skies.

Clear Skies has drawn support from about a dozen labor and government groups, including the boilermakers' and electrical workers' unions, the National Conference of Black Mayors and the Adirondack Council, a leader in the fight against acid rain.

But the utilities and manufacturers are far from united, which helps explain why Clear Skies has found few Senate or House co-sponsors. Some northeastern utility companies that use clean-burning natural gas or nuclear power -- and do not produce large amounts of carbon dioxide -- favor Carper's approach.