Is Bush Negotiating on ‘Clear Skies’ Plan?

Electricity Daily The Bush administration is quietly negotiating behind the scenes on some compromises to its Clear Skies approach to rewriting the 1990 Clean Air Act, according to Utah environmental lawyer Steve Christiansen. “The scuttlebutt is that the White House is talking abut some changes to the bill it introduced last year that would make the legislation more palatable to a wider group of players,” he told Electricity Daily last week.

Christiansen, whose experience with the air law goes back to the early 1980s, said he suspects that the success of the administration’s “voluntary” reduction program – which apparently involves considerable twisting of arms to accomplish the industrial voluntarism – is a key to compromise on the contentious issues surrounding the multiple pollutant approach in the Bush plan. The dispute, of course, is about whether “multipollutant” means three pollutants – SO2, NOx, and Hg – or, as pushed by greens, a fourth – CO2.

“If the administration, through its voluntary program, can create the perception that it is serious and making progress, that could translate into a deal,” said Christiansen, who represents industrial clients for the Salt Lake City firm of Parr, Waddoups, Brown, Gee and Loveless.

But Christiansen doesn’t believe Congress is likely to pass legislation this year. “This year is difficult,” he said, “because of terrorism, Iraq, the economy. Bush Sr. used the 1990 amendments as a political chit to help improve his environmental image in the runup to the 1992 election.” Christiansen said he expects that is what’s on the mind of the son, suggesting that next year might offer the opportunity for passage. “From the state of the union address,” he said, “it is clear that these issues are on Bush’s mind from a political standpoint.”

An emissions trading mechanism is likely to be the key to a compromise, says Christiansen. “Most agree that Title IV of the ’90 amendments works pretty well. There will be attempts to take a similar approach, with tighter caps on SO2 and especially NOx, and a cap on mercury.” Christiansen said he believes it is significant that the administration sent veteran Environmental Protection Agency staffer Brian McLain to represent it at a recent utility environment meeting in Tucson. “He’s EPA’s trading guru,” he said, noting that McLain had been working on trading policy issues since before the passage of the 1990 amendments.

It’s clear, Christiansen said, that the command-and-control approach of earlier iterations of air legislation can no longer work well. “Command-and-control can be successful,” he said. “But we have gotten about 90 percent of the reductions available. We have picked the low-hanging fruit. For every additional percentage reduced, the cost is geometrically higher.”

The capital costs of the administration’s Clear Skies plan, Christiansen noted, have been variously estimated at $25 billion over 15-20 years (EPA) to $36 billion (Edison Electric Institute). In any case, he says, “that’s a lot of money. And this is the most industry-friendly of all the bills that have been talked about.” [KM]