Thursday, September 29, 2005

House Energy Bill: Biggest Clean Air Act Weakening in History


(Washington, DC. September 29, 2005) – The non-profit Clean Air Watch today warned that energy legislation approved early this morning by a House of Representatives committee “would be the biggest weakening of the Clean Air Act in history.”

Just after midnight, following a largely partisan debate, the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved legislation allegedly designed to increase the capacity of oil refineries in the wake of recent hurricanes.

But Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, noted the legislation includes many provisions that have no connection at all to gas prices. The bill, slated to come before the full House of Representatives next week, would “blow gaping loopholes in the Clean Air Act,” O’Donnell noted.

Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-TX) noted he took the unusual step of holding a marathon bill-writing session without a prior hearing because he was prodded by the House Republican leadership to bypass normal procedures. The leadership – roiled yesterday by the indictment of Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) – reportedly has been concerned about public anger over high gasoline prices.

“Unfortunately, this appears to be a cynical attempt to exploit the recent hurricanes for political gain – and the gain of well-connected special-interest polluters,” O’Donnell said. “This would be the biggest weakening of the Clean Air Act in history. It will merely exacerbate human suffering.”

O’Donnell pointed, for example, to a provision that would “eviscerate” a key enforcement tool in the law known as new source review. This tool, which has been used many times to reduce pollution from refineries, coal-fired electric power plants and other smokestack industries, has long been unpopular with big polluters. The dirty-air provision, sponsored by Barton, would permit thousands of smokestack industries – not just refineries – to increase real-world emissions.

Barton noted yesterday that he included the provision at the specific request of the Bush administration – a startling revelation since the administration’s Justice Department has advocated the use of this pollution cleanup tool in pending enforcement cases against big power companies. (In response to industry lobbying, the Bush administration separately has tried to weaken this tool through regulations, but its efforts have been stymied by a federal court.)

“Gutting this part of the law would undermine the Justice Department enforcement cases and open the door to increased pollution,” O’Donnell noted. “There is an appearance here of a political payback to special interests including the oil and electric power industries.”

The controversial legislation also includes a Barton-sought provision that would encourage the EPA to postpone smog cleanup requirements in many communities afflicted by pollution from upwind areas. A Barton staffer admitted during the deliberations that this provision – like the new source review provision -- had no direct relation to energy industry needs following the recent hurricanes.

In addition, the legislation would take away state and local authority regarding refinery permits and would impede efforts to require cleaner fuels.