A nation that still generates about half its electricity from dirty coal can't be lax about keeping its air clean. But the Bush administration appears ready to loosen federal rules on how much older, coal-fired power plants can pollute.
Two years ago the Clinton administration began to tighten enforcement of a key provision in the Clean Air Act of 1970. That provision exempts older plants from pollution standards but demands they meet those standards if their production capacity - and hence polluting capacity - were enlarged.
A number of utilities were sued by the government, which charged they had made improvements in older plants without strengthening pollution controls. Those lawsuits were headed toward settlement, leading to reduced emissions and the imposition of fines.
But the new administration is open to changing how the law is applied. Its proposals smack of a retreat from clean-air standards in the name of energy security. One option would be to set higher thresholds for requiring new antipollution efforts at power plants. Another approach would be to amend the Clean Air Act to set across-the-board limits for specific power-plant emissions. That has promise, but it won't be easy to agree on just which chemicals to control.
There should be no disagreement, however, over the need to clean up old coal-burning plants that account for a disproportionate share of the pollution in the eastern United States. The Bush administration shouldn't miss the opportunity to show an environmentally aware public that it can resolve matters like this without marching to industry's drumbeat.