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For Utilities the Fix Is In | The Nation

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For Utilities the Fix Is In

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For years, environmental advocates in and out of government have labored to construct a connecting arch between opposing interests that could lead to the first real legislative action on global warming. Last year the elements for a breakthrough deal seemed in place. Both major presidential nominees said they were on board. Then George W. Bush came into office and removed the keystone from the arch.

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William Greider
William Greider
William Greider, a prominent political journalist and author, has been a reporter for more than 35 years for newspapers...

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The keystone is the bundle of federal lawsuits that the Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department have filed against electric utility polluters, plus the active investigations of a hundred or more other power plants and refineries for similar gross violations. The President has ordered a "review" of these legal actions--in effect freezing enforcement and perhaps halting it entirely. Without the threat of these lawsuits, electric utilities have no incentive to accept new federal regulation of their carbon dioxide emissions--a crucial first step in the long-delayed imperative to reduce global warming.

Bush's action may sound like inside-the-Beltway intrigue--and it is--but the consequences could be momentous if not challenged by a public outcry. His action should also inspire a careful Congressional investigation. Who exactly put the fix in at the White House? The defendants, appears to be the answer, joined by old reliables like ExxonMobil. The companies threatened by the EPA's multibillion-dollar lawsuits--coal, oil and the big-time scofflaws in electricity generation--evidently went through a back door labeled Rove-Cheney Office of Political Environmentalism. Their achievement illustrates another bipartisan scandal--our torturously slow-acting and incomplete environmental laws. The government is, in fact, still struggling to get this crowd to comply with clean-air standards put in place thirty years ago.

To appreciate the contradictions, start with the Clean Air Act of 1970, which grandfathered in, as exempt from the new pollution standards, hundreds of outmoded power plants. Regarded at the time as necessary for passage of the act, this trade-off allowed the plants to keep operating--but not to expand their output--on the assumption that they would gradually be phased out. Instead, more than 300 of the grandfathered power plants are still going and produce more than half the country's electricity, as well as the bulk of its mercury, nitrogen and sulfur air pollution (electric utilities are also the largest source of carbon dioxide pollution). And, in defiance of the law, a lot of the exempted plants expanded. Those violations, after decades of regulatory debate and failed persuasion, led to the first batch of EPA lawsuits filed against seven companies in 1999, with many more promised. They involve serious lawbreaking and huge liabilities--and potentially expose companies to public-health damage suits as well.

Several of the more enlightened companies began looking for a deal: In exchange for relief from the lawsuits, they'd accept a new regulatory law curbingtheir pollution. That's when enviro groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) put global warming on the table too. If Congress enacted legislation covering the other three pollutants, it made sense to include carbon dioxide, never before subject to regulatory curbs. Some utility executives, recognizing its inevitability, accepted the trade-off. Why modernize plants for the three established pollutants, then have to come back to retrofit for carbon emissions? That promising confluence of interests inspired the four-pollutant legislation now pending in Congress.

But the Bushies are proceeding to let industry off the hook. First, Bush canceled his campaign promise to support mandatory carbon dioxide reductions (his policies will likely be hammered at the United Nations conference on global warming in Bonn this month). Then Dick Cheney's secretive energy task force proposed the "review," virtually suspending compliance agreements that some companies had already negotiated with the EPA. The NRDC has identified the National Coal Council, a supposedly nonpolitical federal advisory committee, as a central meeting place where defendant firms and their lawyers collaborate with coal and oil reps on devising the counterattack. Lois Schiffer, head of the Justice Department's environmental enforcement under Clinton, told the Wall Street Journal: "It's sort of like going to the White House to get your parking tickets fixed."

White House tampering with law enforcement on behalf of accused lawbreakers who are the President's patrons ought to be treated as a big deal, even in scandal-jaded Washington. Senate Democrats do not need to engage in bipartisan niceties on this-- they must make a full-throated commitment to legislate and to make global warming a decisive election issue for 2002 and especially 2004, if Bush persists in pandering to the most retrograde industrial interests. Democrats, quite by accident, have a running start here. The new chairman of the Senate environment committee--former Republican Jim Jeffords--is the co-sponsor of the four-pollutant legislation (with Democrat Joe Lieberman). If Jeffords couldn't rally his old party to the cause of global warming, maybe he can convince his new friends on the other side of the aisle to take it seriously.

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