Cloudy Outlook for Clear Skies:

Last week, President Bush reaffirmed that his "Clear Skies" proposal is his top environmental priority for the year when he nominated Stephen Johnson to be Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Yet Clear Skies may have trouble in Congress. The Senate Environment Committee has repeatedly delayed consideration of the bill because it may lack the votes necessary to approve the bill. According to this report, another markup session is scheduled for tomorrow.

The basic idea behind "Clear Skies" is to replace existing command-and-control regulation of utility emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide with a "cap and trade" program covering these two pollutants and mercury emissions. Basically, the legislation would set "caps" on the total amount of emissions that power plants could emit, and portions of the caps would be divvied out as tradable permits to power plants. The idea is that this would encourage more cost-effective emission reductions and facilitate greater overall emission reductions than can be achieved under existing law through the administrative process.

Environmental activist groups oppose "Clear Skies," claiming it will "roll back" environmental protections under the Clean Air Act. Yet as this article by David Whitman from the liberal Washington Monthly points out, most of the green critiques of "Clear Skies" are off base. As Whitman describes, environmentalist leaders let their loathing for the Bush Administration, and general distrust of Republican politicians, get ahead of their concern for improving environmental protection.

As might be expected, green advocates criticized the Bush bill . . . for failing to go far enough or fast enough in reducing pollution. But in a novel twist, environmentalists have also asserted that Clear Skies is actually weaker than the existing Clean Air Act—and would thus allow millions of tons of added pollution and inflict tens of thousands of needless deaths during the next decade. . . . In fact, this oft-repeated green bromide turns out to be false. But the dispute over the bill's impact is only part of the story of how the perfect has become the enemy of the good in the clean air wars.

The claims that Clear Skies would allow for greater emissions than current law are based upon highly questionable assumptions about the effectiveness of ordering additional rounds of emission reductions under current law through the regulatory process. Compared against any set of realistic assumptions, however, Clear Skies would clearly result in greater emissions reductions. Still, some environmental activists would claim these reductions are not enough, and oppose any legislation that does not include caps on carbon dioxide -- which is not currently regulated under the Clean Air Act at all.

Whitman continues:

The response of environmental advocates to Clear Skies is not altogether surprising, given the movement's loathing for Bush and his appointees, many of whom were drawn from the ranks of industry lobbyists. Yet for many years, green advocates have often shown a self-destructive intolerance for compromise. . . . Ultimately, the environmental movement's intense pressure to hold ranks—call it the thin green line—precluded honest debate about Clear Skies.

The Adirondack Council and Democratic Senator Tom Carper were labeled "Clean Air Villains" for daring to suggest Clear Skies had some merit. For more on Clear Skies and the Whitman article, see this post by Bishop Grewell on The Commons Blog, and these remarks at Gristmill.

To be sure, the Bush Administration has earned some measure of distrust on environmental issues. But this does not excuse the consistent misrepresentation of the Clear Skies proposal and its likely effect on air quality. Now the damage is done, and it is unclear whether Clear Skies, or any other needed environmental reform proposal, will make it through this Congress.