RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The political battle over how to interpret a decade's old clean air statute is heating up again. The latest controversy stems from a leaked EPA proposal that would change the way pollution from power plants is measured. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.
ALLISON AUBREY reporting:
The 95-page draft document was not intended for the eyes of John Walke, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Mr. JOHN WALKE (Lawyer for National Resources Defense Council): What I'm holding now is a leaked draft proposal from EPA to undermine the clean air laws at the expense of every American's right to breathe clean air.
AUBREY: The document proposes a new rule for controlling emissions from power plants. Currently, emissions are tallied on a total annual basis. Plants that exceed a specific tonnage over the course of a year are required to upgrade their pollution control technologies. The proposed rule would set limits for pollution on an hourly basis but not overall.
Mr. WALKE: If a power plant keeps its hourly rate of pollution the same and doubles or triples or quadruples the amount of time it is running and pumping out pollution, you're going to see a doubling or quadrupling of pollution from that plant.
AUBREY: The electric power industry sees this hourly vs. annual distinction much differently. Scott Segal heads up the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council.
Mr. SCOTT SEGAL (Electric Reliability Coordinating Council): Let's be clear. The best way to reduce emissions is to get more electricity out of less coal.
AUBREY: Rules that encourage hourly efficiency could work as an incentive, Segal says, but he argues power plants are not being let off the hook. He points to a separate federal regulation known as the Clean Air Interstate Rule, which is intended to reduce overall amounts of pollution.
Mr. SEGAL: The Clean Air Interstate Rule would require 70 percent reductions in emissions across the board. And frankly, that's the fastest way to bring all facilities into compliance and to reduce their amount of emissions.
AUBREY: The proposed change to adopt the hourly emissions system comes as a series of legal cases triggered by the current regulations lend their way through federal court. New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer says when power companies have tried to make the case for an hourly standard in court, they've sometimes lost.
Mr. ELIOT SPITZER (New York Attorney General): We have garnered wonderful settlements with a number of companies that have reduced their emissions by 70, 80, 90 percent after we established in court that their acts were improper.
AUBREY: Spitzer says the new proposal would undercut the gains made in court.
Mr. SPITZER: It is one more effort on the part of the Bush administration to eviscerate the Clean Air Act, to eliminate the capacity of either the EPA of the states to ensure that the power companies abide by the law and don't continue to spew pollutants into the atmosphere.
AUBREY: But whether the administration will push to finalize this draft is unclear. Eryn Witcher is spokeswoman for EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson.
Ms. ERYN WITCHER (Spokeswoman for EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson): Like all draft proposals, this will go out for public comment. So this is very early on in the process.
AUBREY: The proposal is expected to make its way through an interagency review in the coming weeks.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.
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