TCS Daily

Dirty Political Air

By David Mastio - March 25, 2003 12:00 AM

Covering the environment in Washington, one thing quickly becomes clear: Environmental battles are almost never about the environment or anything close to it.

This year's case in point is a blossoming D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals battle over what to most Americans is obscure environmental gibberish - NSR or New Source Review, a 1970s-era program intended to force old industrial facilities to add new environmental protections as their owners update them.

But in Washington, NSR isn't obscure. It is power. From the environmentalist perspective, it's the power to control. For the oil refiners, power plants and other big industries that most often fall under NSR rules, it's a nightmare that can make earning a profit a dubious proposition.

This court battle spurred by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer will rumble through U.S. courts until well past the next presidential election all the while emitting smoke about "environmental safeguards" and "protecting public health." But behind the scenes, nothing more than crass politics is at the suit's core.

To understand the politics behind the court battle, you only need to ask one question: Does NSR protect the environment?

The answer is short: No. Who says? None other than the Environmental Protection Agency when it was run by Bill Clinton, Al Gore and their tough environmental enforcer Carol Browner.

Back in 1996, Clinton, Gore and Brower knew NSR was a broken wreck of a regulation. So they proposed a wide-ranging set of reforms to fix it. Among those reforms was a plan to make sure that investing in an old plant to make it more efficient and thus more environmentally friendly shouldn't be punished by a battalion of lawsuit-happy EPA lawyers.

So, what has the Bush administration done to deserve the lawsuit they're now facing? They cribbed those Clinton-era reforms and finalized the new rules in the Federal Register. That's all.

By any reasonable standard, that's not an environmental rollback. And here's the kicker. Clinton, Gore and Browner had good environmental reasons for proposing those reforms in the first place. A summary of research from the environmentalist think tank Resources for the Future puts things bluntly: "NSR wastes resources and can retard environmental progress."

RFF's specific findings are even more damning:

  • NSR requirements "impede the adoption of clean and efficient energy technologies." In other words, the rules make sticking with old technology easier than trying something new.

  • NSR reduces the "benefits resulting from mandated investment in new scrubbing equipment" by making it cheaper and more profitable to run old facilities than updated or new ones with powerful new environmental protection technologies.

  • NSR focuses regulation on narrowly defined legal "triggers" for new environmental improvements rather than giving industry incentives to find the biggest and most efficient improvements. More often than not, NSR requires small and expensive environmental improvements that meet some decades-old regulatory definition instead of allowing industry to substitute bigger improvements elsewhere that might cost less.

  • NSR discourages companies from proper maintenance of even new facilities for fear any improvements might trigger regulatory or legal action. Imagine how well the nation's cars might run if the police could pull you over for having an early oil change.

The facts speak for themselves. So why, then, these lawsuits to keep counterproductive environmental regulatory relics on the books? Well, what those lawsuits will do is help keep alive the myth that Republicans are out to destroy the environment.

According to a decade worth of Gallup polls, most Americans consider themselves environmentalists (even most Republicans think of themselves as environmentalists). In general, the public believes the words of environmental leaders over those of business leaders and Republicans. So while President Bush pushes ideas leftover from the last Democratic administration, his political opponents continue to paint him as the enemy of everything green.

Despite the policy plagiarism, the Bush EPA's decision to reform New Source Review is an act of political bravery that shouldn't go unrewarded, at least not by those who really care about the environment.

David Mastio is a former USA Today editorial writer living in Virginia. He covered the EPA during the Clinton administration while a reporter with The Detroit News.

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