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Battle Over Clean Air is Bound to Get Dirty

After eight years, our long-suffering air is already breathing easier. In just the first month of the Obama administration, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson began revisiting Bush administration policies that some scientists say have set us back more than a decade on global warming. A prime candidate for reversal is the agency's decision to turn down a California request to set tough emissions standards that would effectively create a vehicle fuel efficiency standard of 42 miles per gallon by 2020.

In addition, Obama's climate czar, Carol Browner, recently said that the EPA will soon finally announce whether carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases contributing to global warming are officially a public danger requiring regulation under the Clean Air Act. There is little doubt the EPA will find that they are.

In Capitol Hill testimony two years ago, Browner foreshadowed the assertive tone of the new president by saying the EPA had the moral and legal authority to "protect the health of future generations." She said, "We have the science; the will has been summoned; the technology will come. Have no doubt: We can stop global warming. Anything less would be a felony against the future."

This was even before Obama's budget proposal to raise hundreds of billions of dollars by closing tax loopholes or imposing fees on the fossil fuel industry and polluters. These industries, of course, wail that this idea is a felony against profits. In an unprecedented war, industries are summoning lobbyists and lawyers to twist the arms of senators and representatives, trash the science, and thwart the will of the people.

The Center for Public Integrity, with data from the Center for Responsive Politics, published a report last week that found that 15 percent of all lobbyists on Capitol Hill now do some work on climate change, as more than 770 companies hired an estimated 2,430 lobbyists to deal with such legislation over the last five years. It is an increase of more than 300 percent. That is 4.5 lobbyists for every man and woman in Congress.

The fierce resistance is symbolized by William Kovacs, vice president of the US Chamber of Commerce. He told the Wall Street Journal that carbon dioxide regulation through the Clean Air Act "would completely shut the country down."

The resistance also comes in the fine print. In December, General Motors submitted a restructuring report that pledged an average car fleet fuel efficiency of 37.3 miles per gallon by 2012. But in a revision submitted to the Treasury two weeks ago, the company slid backward to 33.7 miles per gallon. It also downgraded its 2012 goal for trucks from 27.5 miles per gallon to 23.8.

If General Motors, on its knees for another $17 billion in bailout funds, remains this sneaky and arrogant, what will other fossil fuel-related companies do to delay regulation and destroy the future? It is another reason GM and Chrysler should not get another dime of taxpayer money until they get real. More broadly, it is a reason for Obama - as much as he is being stretched by the overall economic crisis - to signal he will not tolerate any more corporate shenanigans.

The first thing Obama should tell Gary Locke to do after Locke is confirmed as commerce secretary is tell the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers to send away the lobbyists and bring in the engineers to retool America. Obama should also hold a public event with Jackson and Browner at his side to tell the polluters that, just like Vice President Joe Biden, you don't mess with Lisa or Carol.

Obama has to make it absolutely clear to his environment officials that he will not abandon them, in contrast to the way Bush humiliated his first EPA administrator, Christine Todd-Whitman, openly trashing her agency's reports on climate change. Obama must officially declare that the trash talk of the Chamber of Commerce and the toxic dump of lobbyists for polluters have no place in his White House. The air did breathe easier on inauguration day. But with lobbyists outnumbering members of Congress more than 4 to 1, a choking smog is about to envelop Capitol Hill.

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