A Senate committee handed President Bush a setback Wednesday by failing to pass his key environmental initiative -- a rewriting of the Clean Air Act that would change air pollution rules for power plants.
Environmentalists have attacked the Bush administration’s Clear Skies Act, saying it would grant some of the nation’s biggest producers of acid rain, mercury and smog too much time to meet new emissions standards while failing to address global warming.
Bush has said his approach would reduce air pollution without unduly curbing economic expansion.
The White House lobbied for months to persuade a majority on the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee to support its plan. And committee Chairman James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) postponed votes on the initiative three times in the last month as negotiations continued.
But on Wednesday, a panel vote on the Clear Skies measure deadlocked, 9-9. A Republican -- Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island -- joined with seven Democrats and Independent Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont in opposing the plan.
The impasse means the initiative is likely to remain bottled up in committee indefinitely.
In a speech to supporters in Ohio shortly after the vote, Bush indicated that his administration would not wait for Congress to take action.
“Congress is debating the Clear Skies initiative, but I’m going to act to get results,” he told an audience in Columbus. “Clear Skies uses the power of free markets to reduce power plant pollution by 70% without disrupting the energy supply or raising electricity prices.”
The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce a rule today that would use a market-based system to limit air pollution in the Northeast. And early next week, the EPA is expected to unveil a second rule to limit mercury emissions from power plants nationwide.
The two rules incorporate some of the core provisions of the Clear Skies Act. But administration officials said they anticipated environmentalists and some utilities would file suit to block implementation.
Only legislation, they said, would ensure that the changes were permanent, ease their implementation and roll back some of the provisions of the Clean Air Act, the 1970 law that Bush seeks to alter.
“These rules provide some of the same benefits as Clear Skies, but they are not a substitute for effective legislation,” Bush said in his Columbus speech. “To protect the environment, to protect jobs here in Ohio and around our country, Congress needs to get a good Clear Skies bill to my desk now.”
Wednesday’s vote handed environmentalists -- who have frequently criticized the administration’s policies -- a rare victory.
They have attacked the Clear Skies initiative since Bush unveiled it in 2003. Environmental groups say it would give companies greater leeway than they have under the Clean Air Act to make upgrades to old power plants without having to install new emissions controls. And they say the initiative would block states from going after cross-border pollution from power plants. But some had braced for defeat when Republicans increased their majorities in the House and Senate in November elections.
Frank O’Donnell, a lobbyist with the Clean Air Trust in Washington, said the White House hurt its cause by not working more closely with moderate Democrats on the committee who expressed interest in reaching a compromise on the Clear Skies bill.
The administration has said the measure would ensure that the nation’s next generation of clean air rules would not force power companies to abandon coal as a fuel source.
The act proposes cutting power plant emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide 70% by 2015. It would cut power plant emissions of mercury 70% by 2018.
The EPA has estimated such a cut would significantly improve air quality for most of the more than 150 million Americans who live in counties where smog or particle pollution exceeds federal health requirements.
“I’m afraid what has happened here is this bill has been killed by the environmental extremists who care more about continuing the litigation-friendly status quo and making political statements ... than they do about reducing air pollution,” Inhofe said after Wednesday’s vote.
But Chafee said his opposition to the Clear Skies measure was “an easy ‘no’ vote” for him because, in his view, the existing Clean Air Act provides greater protection against air pollution than the president’s plan. He also said the Bush administration proposal failed to address global warming because it would not set a cap on carbon dioxide emissions produced by power plants.
“It just seems a shame to me that Congress is the last bastion of denial when it comes to climate change,” Chafee said.
He and the committee’s Democrats had sought some sort of regulation of carbon dioxide emissions in the Clear Skies Act. Carbon dioxide is recognized as one of the major causes of global warming.
Chafee also said he thought Bush’s plan was “likely dead” this year.
But Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), who led talks with the committee’s Republicans and the White House on behalf of Democrats in recent weeks, said Wednesday’s vote could spur further negotiations.
“Every now and then, a vote like this is needed in order to really compel all parties to really negotiate in earnest,” Carper said. “My hope is this vote today will compel the administration to unleash the EPA to do the work they have traditionally done.”
Carper said Democrats were disappointed that the EPA has not provided them with data on the potential effect of requiring faster, deeper cuts in emissions of air pollutants than the administration wanted.
“Once we have the analytical data from the EPA, we can go forward and put together a bill that goes further and faster than the administration has suggested,” Carper said.
Environmentalists and their congressional allies have attacked Bush’s market approach to the pollution problem.
A key provision in the Clear Skies measure would establish what is known as the cap-and-trade system. Under it, a ceiling on polluting emissions is established.
Companies that reduce more than their share of the cap receive emissions credits, which they can sell to companies that exceed their limits.
Environmental, health and labor groups maintain that emissions could be reduced by as much as 90% by 2008 under existing law if the administration would simply issue tighter regulations.