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Clear Skies Act too murky

THE BUSH administration has been trying for years to weaken federal regulation of air pollution from utilities and other large industries. At the center of this campaign is a new, less stringent air-pollution bill called the Clear Skies Act. Last month, the National Academy of Sciences confirmed what critics of the bill in state houses and environmental organizations have been saying: The Bush bill would permit more emissions than under current law.

The provision of the current law that utilities and coal-mining companies most oppose is called New Source Review. It requires companies that upgrade old plants built before the existing Clean Air Act was passed to install new antipollution devices. Doing so reduces the profitability of the big coal-burning plants in the South and Midwest that are the worst polluters.

The National Academy of Sciences report takes issue with claims from the Bush administration that its Clear Skies proposal to let companies buy and sell credits for reductions of capped pollutants would result in more reductions than under the Clean Air Act. ''In general," the report says, ''New Source Review provides more stringent emission limits for new and modified major sources" than the Clear Skies bill.

In 2003, having failed to get Clear Skies through Congress, the administration reinterpreted New Source Review rules so that they would take effect only if an upgrade exceeded 20 percent of a plant's total replacement cost. But a federal court has blocked that change in the rules since late 2003.

When the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee opened its hearing on Clear Skies on Jan. 25, it had before it a letter from the Republican governors of New York and California, George Pataki and Arnold Schwarzenegger. They oppose a provision that would undermine states' ability to enforce air-quality regulations or create tougher ones. Current law allows states to seek the federal government's help if pollution from out-of-state sources interferes with their efforts to improve air quality. The new bill would suspend such requests until at least 2012. A spokesman for Governor Mitt Romney said Monday he also opposes that change from current law.

Congress should reject the Orwellian-named Clear Skies in favor of a bill introduced by Senators James Jeffords of Vermont, Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, and Susan Collins of Maine that would keep New Source Review and mandate tougher emission reductions. The bipartisan Jeffords bill would also, for the first time, put a federal cap on carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon dioxide is the most common of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. Any updating of the Clean Air Act that does not address greenhouse gases does not deserve consideration. 

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