January 10, 2005


Partly Sunny: Why enviros cant admit that Bush's Clear Skies initiative isn't half bad. (David Whitman, December 2004, Washington Monthly)
It is hard to find a leading environmental advocate who has not denounced Clear Skies, the Bush administration's bill to reduce power-plant pollution. Clear Skies headed the Kerry campaign's list of “The Bush/Cheney Top 10 Environmental Insults,” and has been repeatedly assailed by green activists for gutting the historic Clean Air Act. Al Gore has said that Clear Skies should be renamed “Dirty Skies.” The proposal has become a prime exhibit for those who delight in examples of Bush doublespeak.

Yet this vitriol seems strangely at odds with the express goals of the legislation. Clear Skies requires utilities to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and mercury by about 70 percent by 2018. The Environmental Protection Agency projects Clear Skies will prevent the deaths of 14,100 Americans a year—akin, in a sheer body count, to saving the life of every person who died from HIV in the United States in 2003.

By most accounts, Clear Skies would prevent more deaths than any environmental regulation since 1997 at a cost of about $6 billion a year to the utility industry. But instead of garnering broad support and sailing through Congress, this important public health measure has languished on Capitol Hill. It is now little more than a symbol of the Bush administration's craven coziness with the energy industry.

As might be expected, green advocates criticized the Bush bill and its regulatory heir, the Clean Air Interstate Rule, for failing to go far enough or fast enough in reducing pollution. But in a novel twist, environmentalists have also asserted that Clear Skies is actually weaker than the existing Clean Air Act—and would thus allow millions of tons of added pollution and inflict tens of thousands of needless deaths during the next decade. John Kerry summed up the conventional wisdom on the left during his second debate with President Bush by observing that Clear Skies is “one of those Orwellian na- mes. . . . If they just left the Clean Air Act all alone the way it is today—no change—the air would be cleaner than it is if you passed the Clear Skies Act.” In fact, this oft-repeated green bromide turns out to be false. But the dispute over the bill's impact is only part of the story of how the perfect has become the enemy of the good in the clean air wars. The battle over Clear Skies has shaped up as a classic Washington tale of a creditable endeavor hopelessly mismanaged by its sponsor, demagogued by its opponents, and tainted from the start by the administration's well-earned reputation as handmaidens of industry. The resulting gridlock could delay attempts to clean up the environment and cost thousands of Americans their lives.
Unfortunately, the Left has become so reactionary that it even opposes things it favors if they're proposed by Republicans.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 10, 2005 1:55 PM

"Become so reactionary"? If I remember correctly, the environmentalists weren't exactly hoisting Richard Nixon up on their shoulders and shouting huzzahs back in 1970 when he authorized the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Posted by: John at January 10, 2005 3:13 PM