EPA change raises specter of eco-slackening

Congress likely to ease conservation laws, but the GOP's past offers a cautionary tale.

The recent elections may have cleared the air on who'll be in charge in Washington for the next two years. But the Republican near-sweep is likely to increase political fog over environmental protection and energy generation.

GOP control of both House and Senate gives President Bush freer rein to push for the more relaxed rules and regulations he prefers - particularly in areas that impact manufacturing and domestic energy production. The practicalities of the fight against terrorism, heightened potential for war, and the need to revive the economy add to his philosophical bent in this direction.

But recent political history cautions against overreaching on such issues. In the mid-1990s, Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich and others pushed a "Contract with America" that appeared to many Americans (Republicans as well as Democrats) to undermine environmental laws. Though the contract didn't pinpoint the environment, its principles of small government and private-property protection undermined some conservation laws - and tarnished the GOP's environmental image. Within a couple of elections, Mr. Gingrich and the Contract were history.

In his first major move on the issue since this month's elections, Mr. Bush has proposed loosening federal regulations on air pollution. Until now, older power-generating plants, refineries, and factories (those built before the Clean Air Act amendments of 1977) had to meet tougher air-quality standards whenever they modernized their plants. Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency announced new rules that will ease that requirement.

In the long run, says EPA administrator Christie Whitman, it will actually "increase energy efficiency and decrease air pollution" by making it less onerous to upgrade power plants and factories.

The move was hailed by many business and labor organizations. "This is a good first step in reforming a seriously flawed regulatory program," says Bruce Josten, executive vice president of the United States Chamber of Commerce.

But environmentalists see it another way. "EPA is stripping away vital, cost-effective clean air measures that have protected Americans from the harmful effects of industrial air pollution for a quarter century," says Vickie Patton, senior attorney with the advocacy group Environmental Defense in New York. Democratic Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and John Kerry of Massachusetts (both of whom are possible challengers to Bush in 2004) say Ms. Whitman should resign.

Others call it a "payoff" to 13 large electric utilities that gave more than $4 million to Republican congressional candidates in mid-term elections (more than twice the amount given to Democrats).

In any case, Bush can expect stronger support on Capitol Hill. Chairmanship of the Senate environment committee shifts from James Jeffords (I) of Vermont to James Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma. The League of Conservation voters, a Washington-based advocacy group, says Senator Jeffords voted "correctly" 76 percent of the time; it rates Senator Inhofe at zero. Chairing the Energy Committee will be Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico, a strong supporter of energy exploration on federal lands, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

In the House, chairmanship of the Resources Committee is yet to be decided. But retiring chairman James Hansen (R) of Utah left his colleagues what he calls "a shot across the bow" in a bill that would make major changes to the Endangered Species Act. The proposal - a dream come true for those who think the landmark species-protection act went too far - would exempt military lands, private property, and all plant life from the law. "I'm just greasing the wheels for change here, giving my colleagues something they can act on swiftly," says Representative Hansen.

Depending on how it's played, such a proposal could smooth the way for environmentalists to target Republicans - including Bush - in 2004. Administration critics say it's part of a recent pattern: more oil and gas drilling in Wyoming and elsewhere, allowing snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park, exempting the military from restrictions under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, reversing Clinton-era protections for millions of acres of roadless areas in national forests.

THE House and Senate have yet to agree on a comprehensive energy bill, and the election results made certain no energy legislation would come out of the lame-duck session.

"The energy bill essentially got dropped because the Republicans and the special interests realized they may be able to get what they want next year without compromise due to controlling both chambers," says a Democratic congressional source.

Although the GOP now controls House, Senate, and White House, that doesn't mean the administration is home free on energy and environmental issues. There are still some moderate, relatively "green" Republican lawmakers and governors likely to side with Democrats on key topics. (New York's Republican Gov. George Pataki, for example, opposes the administration's effort to loosen the Clean Air Act.) Democrats still hold enough Senate seats to sustain a filibuster on, say, drilling for oil in ANWR.

And the new clean-air regulations may not be a fait accompli. The attorneys general of nine Northeastern states - all Demo-crats and all downwind of polluting plants in the Midwest - have vowed to take the EPA to court.

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