WASHINGTON -- As the Bush administration prepares to announce regulatory changes that could weaken the Clean Air Act, White House officials appear to be haunted by the ghost of controversial environmental decisions past.
The administration already is more than four months past its own deadline for revising a key program that requires companies to install modern pollution-control devices when making major modifications to equipment and increasing emissions.
The terrorist attacks and an internal debate over the revision have slowed the process. As of Thursday, administration officials could only advise that the announcement would come soon, possibly within weeks.
The belabored ruminations reflect some administration officials' desire to avoid the public relations bruisings the president took last year for initially rejecting a Clinton administration plan to reduce arsenic in drinking water and reversing a campaign pledge to regulate greenhouse gas-producing carbon dioxide, according to congressional and administration officials.
The administration's delay in announcing what insiders say is a pro-industry decision also illustrates the particular importance of this action, which environmentalists say could be the most significant scaling back of the clean air law since it was enacted in 1970.
Utilities, manufacturers, chemical companies and other major polluters have pushed the administration for regulatory changes that would clarify how they can expand or renovate their plants without installing new pollution-control equipment. They argue the regulatory program, known as "new source review," currently discourages companies from making renovations that would improve plant efficiency and save energy.
The administration appears likely to give industry at least some of what it wants, but doing so will invite criticism that it is endangering public health by allowing more air pollution.
Breathing pollution can cause respiratory problems, hospitalization for heart or lung disease, and even premature death, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
"Most of the kinds of things industry wants are going to look like the administration is retreating on clean air," said a Republican congressional aide. He spoke on the condition that he not be named because his boss is working behind the scenes to prevent the administration from weakening the Clean Air Act.
"If it makes it look like the administration is unconcerned with the environment or unconcerned with public health or unconcerned with the Northeast or acting like a tool of industry--any of those things can create political reverberations," the aide said of the anticipated revisions.
But industry officials say the changes will give companies the clarity they need to know that they can conduct routine maintenance without triggering the requirement that they install modern pollution-control equipment.
"Reforming new source review enhances energy efficiency," said Scott Segal, a Washington lobbyist representing utilities. "Maintaining the status quo will harm the environment, harm energy efficiency and harm workplace safety."
EPA officials, including Administrator Christie Whitman, and pro-environmental Republican lawmakers have urged the administration to pair the regulatory rollback announcement with news of a legislative proposal to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury from power plants. The White House is seriously considering that option, according to a senior administration official.
"The administration has been consistent in saying they will do nothing to exacerbate current air quality or to undermine the Clean Air Act," said S. William Becker, executive director of the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators and the Assn. of Local Air Pollution Control Officials. Yet draft proposals from the administration go too far, he added.
"If these changes are implemented as we understand, industry would be allowed to increase their emissions significantly more than what they would be allowed under existing law," said Becker, who has spoken to EPA officials about the potential changes.
Some GOP lawmakers worry that their party will be labeled as callous about pollution unless the administration effectively presents a pollution-cutting proposal along with its changes to the new source review program. They also worry that if the administration gives business regulatory relief now, it will lose an important negotiating tool to encourage business to agree to a new law that will lower pollution by capping emissions.
In a letter, Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.) told White House officials they should make regulatory relief contingent on industry's support for tough pollution caps.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the White House had not received a final recommendation on the new source review reform from government agencies.
A group of officials from the White House, EPA and Energy Department have been debating since the spring details of the new source review reform. Vice President Dick Cheney pushed for a review of the regulation as part of the administration's energy plan.
Under consideration are exemptions that would let plants make changes without installing new pollution control devices if the cost of the renovations is less than a specified amount; if emissions from the whole plant remain below a specified cap, which could be the plant's highest emission level over the last 10 years; and for up to 15 years after installing state-of-the-art pollution-control devices.
The administration stresses that no final decisions have been made.
"We're getting to the light at the end of the tunnel," said Joe Martyak, EPA spokesman. Clean air advocates say administration officials are aware of the political pitfalls.
"I think it's pretty clear from meetings with people that they keenly realize they would be clobbered in the media for simply announcing a rollback of new source review," said Frank O'Donnell, executive director of the advocacy group Clean Air Trust.
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times