While environmental activists scored a victory March 9 with the apparent defeat of President Bush’s so-called “Clear Skies” initiative, they still have a fight on their hands over recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules.

After three years, the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee voted on Clear Skies, ending with a 9-9 deadlock that blocked its passage. The split in the Republican-controlled committee arose over a demand by Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) that provisions against global warming be included in the bill. The committee chair, James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), who calls global warming a “fraud,” refused Chafee’s demand and, after the tie vote, said the legislation was “killed.”

Clear Skies would have been a substantial rewrite of the Clean Air Act (CAA), which was passed under President Nixon because of widespread discontent with air quality in the United States. In the 1990s, a coalition of environmentalists and northeastern governors forced it to be updated to include a measure that would curb acid rain.

That coalition has come back together and has been pushing for further regulation of polluters. This is why the EPA had to pass something, said John Coequyt, a Greenpeace energy policies specialist.

The CAA and its revision were passed over the objections of industries that argued such rules would be too expensive and, therefore, cost jobs. This, however, has proven not to be the case, Coequyt said.

“This time around the reductions are all about public health and not so much about wildlife,” Coequyt said. “Now we’re trying to solve the problem of 24,000 people that die prematurely each year due to air pollution from coal-fired power plants, and the 500,000 asthma attacks each year because of air pollution and smog.”

Under pressure to do something, the Bush administration created Clear Skies. However, reports show that instead of benefiting the environment, the legislation would have weakened existing regulations. While state attorneys general — notably New York’s Eliot Spitzer — have been able to take a lead in prosecuting polluters, Clear Skies would have taken away that right, as well as repealing CAA mercury emission standards and delaying deadlines for polluters to clean up their act. It would also have abolished current clean air provisions, including the New Source Review, which requires power plants to install pollution-reducing technology whenever plants are upgraded.

The EPA has passed two new regulations that it had been planning to use, analysts say, only if Bush’s bill didn’t pass. These are the Clean Air Interstate Act (CAIR) and a new rule on mercury pollution.

Coequyt called CAIR “Clear Skies stripped of all its rollbacks.” It will cut pollutants — mainly nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide — by 70 percent. “It cuts pollutants over a long time frame and in a very industry friendly manner,” he said.

The mercury rule, on the other hand, is considered a disaster. Mercury is a toxic metal but will be regulated as a mere pollutant. The EPA will require only a 70 percent reduction in emissions by 2018, although under President Clinton, administration it had called for a 90 percent reduction by 2008.

“The EPA’s rule is illegal, irresponsible, and breaks the promise the agency made five years ago to slash hazardous pollutants, including mercury, from coal-burning power plants,” said John Walke, director of Natural Resource Defense Committee’s Clean Air Program. “Most important, it blatantly disregards the threat mercury poses to our children. Failing to clean up mercury pollution sentences them to a life of lost opportunities.”

Dmargolis @ pww.org