Easterbrook Rebuts New York Times on Bush Clean Air Policy

Published July 1, 2004

The April 4 cover of New York Times Magazine proclaimed, “Up in Smoke: The Bush Administration, the Big Power Companies and the Undoing of 30 Years of Clean Air Policy.” Inside, a 13-page article claims President George W. Bush has gutted the Clean Air Act with his New Source Review updates.

Guerilla political attacks against a sitting President, especially one who is not from the extreme left of the political spectrum, are neither new nor particularly noteworthy from the Times. What is noteworthy is that Gregg Easterbrook, a senior editor for The New Republic, felt so outraged by the article that he dedicated a column in his publication to rebutting the Times attack.

Easterbrook points out, “all pollution regulated by the Clean Air Act is declining, has been declining for years, and continues to decline under George W. Bush. That’s not mentioned in the 13 pages, since it would more or less spoil the entire premise of the story and the dramatic cover. No factual statement in the Times Magazine piece appears wrong, but the article systematically ignores counter-arguments and counter-facts in order to create a picture that is, overall, inaccurate.”

Return to NSR Normalcy
The Times Magazine begins by describing how New Source Review (NSR) was established in 1977 and occasionally requires older power plants undergoing significant structural upgrades to install modern anti-pollution equipment. NSR has always been complicated and difficult for power companies to understand, frequently resulting in government lawsuits against power plants due to differing plausible interpretations of the act.

Late in the Clinton administration, EPA Administrator Carol Browner made the rules more strict, leading some utilities to postpone routine maintenance and equipment upgrades that would improve efficiency and reduce emissions. The Bush administration has crafted more readily understood rules dictating just when NSR requires companies to upgrade their anti-pollution equipment and technology.

Pollution Declining Under Bush
Easterbrook blasts the Times Magazine article for a number of implicit distortions in reporting on air quality under Bush. “Where the distortion enters is in what’s not said,” asserts Easterbrook. “First, the impression given is that new-source review is the guts of the Clean Air Act, when in fact it’s a secondary provision, governing only a small fraction of total air emission sources. Second and much more important, trends involving pollutants governed by the Clean Air Act are positive and have continued to be positive under George W. Bush.”

Adds Easterbrook, “Aggregate air emissions, everything rolled into one, have declined 25 percent since 1970, though the population has risen 39 percent in the same period. The Times Magazine cover and article give the impression that air pollution is getting worse when in fact it’s in significant decline: about half as much, per capita, as in 1970.

“More specifically,” continued Easterbrook, “[p]articulate emissions have declined 14 percent in the last decade. Acid rain emissions from power plants have fallen 41 percent since 1980 and have fallen 9 percent since Bush’s election. Nitrogen oxide emissions from power plants have declined 33 percent since 1990.

“So The New York Times Magazine proclaims the ‘undoing’ of clean air policy,” asserts Easterbrook, “but skips over the complication that air pollution is declining, and, yes, declining under George W. Bush. This deceives the reader, creating a doomsday impression that makes for a good magazine cover and gives [author Bruce] Barcott’s article urgency, but does not hold up if you know what the article doesn’t tell you. Barcott writes that he ‘conducted months of extensive interviews’ on Bush clean-air policy. In those months did he never ask anyone, ‘Say, is air quality getting worse or better?’ Maybe he did ask and kept the answer to himself, since the answer undercuts his story.”

Air Improvements Will Continue
“Elliot Spitzer, Senator James Jeffords, and others who make extravagant claims about the Bush new-source rule change,” summarizes Easterbrook, “never mention the complication that actual trends in air pollution are so inconveniently positive. True, trends might be even more positive had the Clinton-written rule remained in effect. Clinton’s version of the rule was a good job and could have been left to stand; Browner, a very level-headed and reasonable person, put an awful lot of work into her rule and wanted it to be fair to utilities. (Power companies exaggerate the costs of new-source compliance just as enviros exaggerate the degree of emissions.) But the worst-case scenario for Bush’s rule is that it will slow the future rate of pollution decline–which hardly sounds like the undoing of 30 years of clean-air policy, does it?

“Finally,” writes Easterbrook, “the Times Magazine story ignores or buries the really inconvenient complication that the Bush White House has taken some steps to make air pollution regulation more strict. Bush has put into force three powerful new pollution-reduction rules, one written by Browner and the others composed under Bush. One new rule mandates that diesel engines of trucks and buses be much cleaner; a second new rule mandates that ‘off road’ power plants such as outboard motors and construction-machine engines be much cleaner; a third requires refineries to reduce the inherent pollution content of diesel fuel, this last rule enacted over the howls of Bush’s core constituency, the oil boys. Taken together, these three new rules are the most important anti-pollution initiative since the 1991 Clean Air Act amendments that cracked down on acid rain. And because studies show that diesel fumes are bad for public health, Bush’s new rules should produce at least as much public-health gain as the strictest interpretation of the new-source standard. Yet not a word of this in the Times Magazine article, since mention would undercut the premise.”

Furthermore, reports Easterbrook, “in January the Bush EPA promulgated a new set of rules intended to force power plants to make another round of reductions in acid rain and nitrogen oxides. Grudgingly, on the last of its 13 pages, the Times Magazine article allows that Bush’s January regulations might accomplish the goals of the Clinton new-source standard anyway, though doing so at lower cost. Poof! The entire story just disappeared. But how many people read all the way to the third-to-last paragraph, versus how many saw the doomsday cover?”

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

on improving air quality, see Environmental Protection Agency reports at http://www.epa.gov/indicators/roe/pdf/tdAir1-1.pdf (page 11) and http://www.epa.gov/airmarkets/cmprpt/arp02/2002report.pdf (Figure 1). The air quality rules promulgated by EPA in January 2004 are available online at http://www.epa.gov/interstateairquality.