White House revising Clean Air rules

Published March 1, 2002

White House officials spent the first month of the year putting together proposed changes in rules enforcing the Clean Air Act. As a blueprint of the final rules began to take shape, Democratic lawmakers and several attorneys general of northeastern states threatened hearings and lawsuits.

The Clean Air Act of 1970, in addition to imposing stringent clean air requirements on factories constructed after passage of the Act, requires older plants to install the most modern anti-pollution equipment when they expand their facilities and create new sources of pollution. Twenty-eight years after passage of the Act, the Clinton administration began interpreting this “new source” provision more strictly than any previous administration. Most importantly, the Clinton administration began interpreting routine factory maintenance as sufficient activity to trigger companies’ obligation to install expensive new equipment in preexisting plants.

Dan Riedinger, a spokesperson for the Edison Electric Institute, likened the Clinton interpretation to forcing a car owner who is buying new tires to also buy a new engine. If the same owner bought a new fan belt a week later, and engine technology had advanced during the week, the owner would have to buy still another new engine.

As a result of the Clinton administration’s more stringent interpretation of Clean Air Act rules, companies have been reluctant to perform necessary maintenance in their plants. The decline in routine maintenance has led to decreasing efficiency and greater pollution emanating from current equipment.

Clarifying the rules

The Bush administration proposes to codify exactly what types of activities would be considered mere maintenance and what types would trigger new equipment obligations. Democratic congressmen and the attorneys general for several northeastern states are threatening to initiate congressional hearings and launch federal lawsuits if the Bush rules in any way modify the Clinton interpretations.

“Polluters are supposed to reduce their emissions as time goes by, not increase them,” said Senator James Jeffords (I-Vermont). “The administration should consider itself put on notice that it will be held accountable.”

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), who threatened to co-chair Senate hearings with Jeffords, praised the changes imposed under former President Clinton. Leahy also expressed approval of the multitude of lawsuits the Clinton administration launched against private companies after changing its interpretation of the Clean Air Act rules. “It would be a great injustice to the public for the Bush administration to irresponsibly reinterpret that historic legal action,” Leahy said.

Replied Joel Maness, an executive with Sunoco, “We’ve been operating under the Clean Air Act for 20-plus years and we thought we were doing everything just right. We’re saying tell us what the speed limit is and we’ll follow it.”

Bill Harnett, an EPA official, agreed. “One of the fundamental problems is that people don’t understand what the rules are. That is something we are focused on, to make sure that the changes would help bring some clarity.”

Close to the vest

Christie Whitman and the Environmental Protection Agency are reported to favor the more stringent Clinton rules, while Spencer Abraham and the Energy Department prefer the pre-Clinton interpretation. White House officials have indicated the new rules would relax the standards imposed by Clinton … but by how much is still being discussed.

“It’s purely speculation on anyone’s part to assume they know what’s in it,” said White House spokesperson Claire Buchan. “No final decisions have been made.”

Eliot Spitzer, Attorney General for the State of New York, wasn’t waiting for the final decisions to be made. “We will, absolutely, go to court to forestall these rules and regulations,” said Spitzer.