An Aggressive Ruling on Clean Air But Another Dirty Water Act

The Environmental Protection Agency [last] Thursday issued a welcome and overdue rule compelling power plants in 27 states and the District of Columbia to reduce smokestack emissions that pollute the air and poison forests, lakes and streams across the eastern United States. The regulation reflects the E.P.A.’s determination to carry out its mandates under the Clean Air Act despite fierce Congressional opposition, and bodes well for progress on a host of other regulatory challenges the agency faces.

That’s the good news from a NY Times editorial this week.  The good EPA move on clean air, however, was matched by a bad  Congressional move on clean water, as another NYT editorial explains:

Republicans in the House of Representatives — with the support of some key Democrats — seem determined to destroy the intricate and essential web of laws and regulations protecting the country’s environment. Their latest target is the hugely successful 1972 Clean Water Act.

On Wednesday, the House approved the cynically named “Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act,” a bill that would strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its authority to oversee state water quality standards and to take action when the states fail to measure up. This bill is not about protecting states’ powers. It is about allowing industries, farmers and municipalities to pollute.

I think “Orwellian” is a better term than “cynically named.”

President Obama has rightly threatened to veto the bill if it survives the Senate. Absent federal oversight, states are likely to engage in a race to the bottom, weakening environmental rules to attract business.

This assault on the Clean Water Act reminded us, briefly, of 1995, when a Republican-controlled House under Newt Gingrich tried to undermine the same law. That effort enraged independent voters and energized moderate Republicans.

These days, moderate Republicans are as scarce as hen’s teeth, and independent voters are preoccupied with the budget and the economy. This is all the more reason why the Senate and President Obama must ensure that this destructive legislation goes no further.

We are engaged in an epic struggle now to just preserve the very basics for our children —  clean water and clean air —  so many have taken for granted for so long.

While I don’t think the Obama administration is doing a very good job using the bully pulpit to explain the Republican assault on our kids’ health, at  least they are moving forward with actions to  protect and improve clean air with their power plant rule:

The rule, which takes effect in 2012, would cut emissions of sulfur dioxide, a component of acid rain, and nitrogen oxide, a component of smog, by more than half by 2014 compared with 2005 levels. The E.P.A. administrator, Lisa Jackson, said the rule would improve air quality for 240 million Americans in the states where the pollution is produced and in areas downwind.

As is true of nearly every regulation spawned by the landmark 1970 Clean Air Act, the rule’s benefits will greatly outweigh its costs to industry — a truth routinely ignored by the act’s critics, most recently the Tea Party supporters in Congress. The E.P.A. estimates annual benefits at $120 billion to $240 billion, mostly from fewer premature deaths, hospital visits and lost work days associated with respiratory illnesses.

By contrast, the costs of new pollution controls and plant retirements are estimated at $800 million annually, on top of about $1.6 billion in capital improvements already under way in anticipation of the rule….

Over the next few months, the E.P.A. will propose new “performance standards” governing largely unregulated greenhouse gas emissions from power plants; issue a final rule mandating reductions in toxic pollutants like mercury; and propose new state and local health standards for ozone.In addition, President Obama has asked that the agency, in conjunction with the Department of Transportation, set new mileage and emission standards for cars and light trucks manufactured from 2017 to 2025. An earlier round of fuel efficiency standards in 2009 remains Mr. Obama’s single most impressive environmental achievement, but he and the auto industry are nowhere near agreement on what the new standards should be.

Taken together, these rules should lead to cleaner air, a reduction in greenhouse gases and, in the case of the automobile standards, reduced dependence on foreign oil. Given the political obstacles, completing all these will be a remarkable achievement. The new power plant rule is a promising start.

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