Clash over policies on energy, pollution

Pivotal environmental battles of second Bush term may hinge on quest for more energy, and for cleaner skies.

The tension between the desire to find more energy sources and the need to deal with the pollution they produce is creating a political dust-up that may define George Bush's environmental policy during his second presidential term.

Buoyed by his reelection and a larger Republican majority in Congress, Mr. Bush is pushing for more oil, gas, and coal development on public lands - including the controversial coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska. This is the foundation of his energy policy.

At the same time, the administration wants to change landmark air-quality laws by easing some of the regulatory burden on coal-burning power plants and other energy producers while relying on the marketplace to provide incentives for reducing pollution.

Mr. Bush's recent State of the Union address, hearings that began in Congress last week, and the 2006 budget blueprint the White House sent to lawmakers Monday all point in this direction.

But despite the power of the GOP in Washington these days, administration plans here are no slam-dunk. Prominent Republicans are among those skeptical of oil drilling in ANWR, and some have joined the ranks of lawmakers already concerned about the climate change caused by human energy consumption. Some traditionally conservative red-staters along the Rocky Mountain front - ranchers, for example - are speaking out against more oil and gas drilling there.

While fossil fuels get the most attention in the Bush energy plan, it also includes increased spending on renewable energy sources, more government help to develop hydrogen fuel-cell technology, and federal support for the first new nuclear power plant in the United States in three decades.

Meanwhile, Bush's "Clear Skies" proposal would reduce the sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and mercury emitted by coal-burning power plants and other industries - 70 percent by 2018, supporters claim. "These cuts in pollution will provide substantial health benefits, prolonging the lives of thousands of Americans annually, and improving the conditions of life for hundreds of thousands of people with asthma, other respiratory illnesses, and heart disease," James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environment Quality told senators last week.

But Clear Skies does not address a more controversial substance - carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas most experts say is changing earth's climate. What's more, critics say, the administration plan offers fewer protections than would the Clean Air Act of 1970 and its subsequent amendments and it would take longer to reach the pollution-reduction goals.

"The bill weakens - and in many cases eliminates altogether - major air quality safeguards," warns John Walke of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

As with anything this complicated, the devil is in the details of the administration's Clear Skies proposal.

"While the act provides greater certainty than the existing patchwork of case-by-case legal authorities, the act also sets significant and challenging emissions control levels," says Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a group of power-generating companies. "Implementing Clear Skies will be a heavy lift for power producers."

In the view of many observers, administration plans for energy development and pollution reduction are closely connected.

For the four years of his first term, Bush tried - and failed - to get comprehensive energy legislation passed in Congress, although it came very close last year. Several things are different this time: the US is at war in a part of the world rich in oil resources; the country is becoming increasingly dependent on foreign oil; and energy is a key issue for several new members of Congress, such as Sen. Ken Salazar (D) of Colorado.

In some ways, the energy-environment train may be leaving the station ahead of the administration and Congress. According to a recent study by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, most states have taken steps to reduce the greenhouse gases (principally carbon dioxide) causing global warming and 18 states now require that electric utilities generate a portion of their electricity from renewable sources.

In addition, reports Pew, "There is a new and important trend towards multistate regional initiatives that address climate change." For example, nine Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states are developing a cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. The 18 states represented by the Western Governors' Association are investigating strategies to increase efficiency and renewable energy sources in their electricity systems.

Back in Washington, the shifting politics of energy and environmental policymaking are evident. Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska, who fought to keep the US from joining the international Kyoto Protocol on climate change, now talks about the need to reduce the causes of global warming. Several other GOP senators are said to be leaning toward joining the small band of Republicans already on record as favoring federal caps on greenhouse gases.

Both House and Senate are working on energy and clean air proposals. Those may be approved fairly soon. But then comes the more difficult part: reconciling the work of the two chambers. Says energy lobbyist Frank Maisano, "The conference committee is where it really matters."

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