Obama’s new air quality regulations are exactly like Bush’s

July 14, 2010


President Barack Obama is being praised for proposing new air quality regulations to reduce smog and acid rain. Obama’s proposal is a good idea — and strikingly similar to air quality regulations that were proposed in 2002 by George W. Bush, then fought with white fury by Democrats and environmentalists.

The reforms Obama suggests today could have begun eight years ago, were it not for intense opposition from the very people now backing the idea. And therein lies a tale of Washington dysfunction.

In 2002, Bush offered legislation to amend the Clean Air Act of 1970 to reduce smog and acid rain emissions by about two-thirds, while regulating airborne mercury emissions for the first time. You’d think this would have drawn applause from Democrats and environmental lobbies: instead their reaction was angry condemnation. Supposedly the bill was not strict enough because new standards would not go into force for several years, with the final, strongest rules not taking over until 2018. Way too long to wait!

What was really happening was that Democrats wanted to deny the Republican Party a pro-environment accomplishment, while environmentalists wanted, for fundraising purposes, to maintain their treasured illusion that corporations are conspiring to destroy the air. So determined were Democrats to prevent passage of Bush’s air quality bill that in the Senate they blocked it from leaving committee to ensure there would never be an up-or-down floor vote. Sounds a lot like what Republicans are now trying to do to Obama, doesn’t it?

Unable to advance legislation, in 2005, Bush tried to strengthen anti-pollution standards using the administrative authority of the Clean Air Act. The drawback to the Clean Air Act administrative rules is that, for reasons we can skip, they are easy to file lawsuits against. (Bush’s proposed 2002 legislation would have avoided this problem). Sure enough, some groups filed litigation claiming the 2005 clean air rules were too strict while others filed briefs claiming the rules were too lax.

Federal courts spent the next few years bouncing the rules like a basketball — as nothing went into effect. Meanwhile airborne mercury from power plants was being said to represent a super-ultra emergency. Year after year no mercury restrictions went into force, as lawyers and judges argued over commas.

For environmental fundraisers the outcome was ideal: because no action was taken, they could continue to make doomsday claims. For business groups the outcome was also ideal: they could avoid new pollution control costs. For politicians the outcome was ideal, too: each party could blame the other. For the rest of Americans? Screw them!

Bush left town with this mess unresolved. Gridlock happens in Washington not because of a systemic breakdown, but because insiders and lobbyists of all stripes benefit from dilatory tactics. When Washington is gridlocked, political posturing and special-interest fundraising are more effective.

Taking office, Obama’s initial hope was to write broad legislation that reduced air pollution and greenhouse gases at the same time. A year and a half later, greenhouse gas restriction, though justified, is stalled in the Senate. So Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency decided to issue air-pollution reduction rules under existing administrative authority of the Clean Air Act — exactly what Bush tried in 2005.

Obama’s proposed rules are winning praise from some of the same editorial pages that stridently denounced Bush’s extremely similar proposals. Oh well, you know how that game is played.

But Obama’s clean-air rules, however wise, won’t be final until 2012 at the earliest, because administration actions under the Clean Air Act engage in an elaborate public comment process. Because they are administrative rules rather than legislation, they are subject to lawsuits, just as Bush’s were. Typically, Clean Air Act rules in are litigation nearly a decade before becoming final.

This means we will be lucky if any of the new pollution reducing standards actually go into force by the middle of this decade, once described as way, way too late. If it weren’t for Washington dysfunction, the rules would have taken force years ago!

But, take note of these two, important facts:

–Don’t worry about the air. All forms of air pollution, other than greenhouse gases, have declined steadily for a generation, owing to improvements in technology and to reforms even most policy wonks don’t know about, such as regulation of emissions from locomotives and removal of sulfur from diesel fuel. Los Angeles smog has gone down dramatically. Obama’s proposal is still justified, as it would accelerate positive trends. But too few people know that clean-air trends are positive already.

–In 2002, Bush proposed to reduce mercury from power plants beginning in 2005, with a maximum cut of 70 percent by 2018. This was denounced as too little, too late. Owing to gridlock, no mercury rules have been enacted — nothing has happened. Obama himself hasn’t even proposed anti-mercury regulations: when he does, years will pass before anything takes force. Had Bush’s 2002 legislation not been fought, regulation of mercury from power plants would have begun five years ago. Today, we’ll be lucky if it begins five years from now.

For points that didn’t quite make the column, click here.

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