President Bush plans to relax the enforcement of smog regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) after intensive lobbying from the power generating industry, it was reported yesterday.
Under the Clinton administration, the EPA sued more than 50 power plants for trying to exploit loopholes in the Clean Air Act and avoid installing equipment to cut emissions.
But, after a three-month policy review by the Bush administration, the EPA has decided on a far less aggressive approach, suspending or toning down its legal enforcement. Dozens of lawsuits have now been put on hold.
Since assuming office in January, President Bush has sided with industry on a number of key environmental issues, rejecting the Kyoto treaty on global warming and compulsory limits on carbon dioxide emissions.
Environmental groups described this latest move as a monumental setback for efforts to control air pollution. Frank O'Donnell, the executive director of the Clean Air Trust, said yesterday that it could cost the lives of thousands of people vulnerable to poor air quality, including the elderly and sufferers from asthma.
Mr O'Donnell also warned that weaker EPA enforcement would trigger "a polluter feeding frenzy", as other industries lobbied the administration for exemptions.
According to the Washington Post, the EPA is due to deliver its proposals to the White House next week. They involve the "grandfather clause" in the Clean Air Act, which exempts old coal-burning power stations from the environmental standards demanded of new plants.
Under the act, the old plants are allowed to carry out routine repairs and maintenance, but EPA lawyers in the Clinton era accused many energy companies of expanding and rebuilding their own plants under the guise of ordinary repairs. The agency took the companies to court under a scheme called New Source Review.
In at least two cases, according to the Clean Air Trust, power companies were ready to concede and install environmental upgrades but were persuaded by EPA officials to wait until the new regulations were developed.
In their drive to win exemptions from the Clean Air Act, electricity generating companies banded together to form the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a lobby group which employs a string of well-known Republican veterans, including the former head of the party's national committee, Haley Barbour, and a former White House counsel, C Boyden Gray.
Scott Segal, a lawyer for the group, told the Washington Post: "New Source Review discourages companies from performing routine maintenance and therefore ultimately increases pollution."
Mr O'Donnell said that the power industries had failed to provide documented proof that they were being unfairly targeted and dismissed their complaints as rhetoric.
Power stations were the country's largest source of carbon dioxide, he said, and were responsible for about a quarter of the emissions responsible for smog. If the EPA's lawsuits had been successful, he argued, they would have reduced harmful emissions by over a million tons a year.
The Washington Post also reported yesterday that plans to launch Triana, a $100m (£70m) space observatory designed to monitor global warming, have been suspended following Republican opposition in Congress and budget pressures within Nasa.
Triana, a project linked to former vice-president Al Gore, no longer has a space reserved on any shuttle mission.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001