• U.S.

First Hot Air, Then Clean Air

4 minute read
Michael Duffy/Washington

On a crystal-clear morning in June, George Bush stood before the Grand Tetons in Wyoming and proclaimed, “Every American deserves to breathe clean air.” Last week, after environmentalists and their allies on Capitol Hill got a look at the President’s 279-page plan for implementing his promise to clean up America’s spacious but smoggy skies, they claimed he had double-crossed them. Bush, they said, had retreated substantially from his Rocky Mountain rhetoric and in some areas even fell short of current law.

Bush did not take kindly to the charges. In a Rose Garden ceremony Friday, the President inserted into his prepared remarks a pointed rejoinder to his critics. “Anyone who allows political bickering to weaken our progress against pollution,” said Bush, “does a tragic disservice to every city in America and to every American who wants and deserves clean air.”

Skirmishing over the clean-air proposals was inevitable. From the start, it was clear that the White House’s plan for cutting urban smog and toxic pollutants was far more lenient toward industry than was Bush’s widely praised proposal for reducing acid rain. The clean-air plan consisted only of general goals, not detailed provisions that either environmentalists or industry could bank on. As a result, both sides furiously lobbied the Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of Management and Budget as top officials drafted the huge bill. On one day last week one OMB official alone logged 275 telephone calls from lawmakers and Washington lobbyists.

When the final measure was released, environmentalists rushed to declare defeat. What angered them most was a provision that would allow automakers to build some cars that spew out more hydrocarbons than they do under current law, even though new overall emissions standards would be tougher than before. The carmakers could do that by averaging the emissions of every car they ^ produce in a given model year, offsetting the most polluting vehicles with less polluting models. Auto-company experts do not dispute the environmentalists’ interpretation of the “fleet-averaging” provision, but they insist that the bottom line will still be cleaner air. “Some cars may be below and some may be above, but they all have to meet the lower standard on average,” says an industry lobbyist.

Environmentalists are also troubled by Bush’s flimsy guarantee that only three U.S. cities — Los Angeles, Houston and New York City — will fail to meet federal air-quality standards by the year 2000. Critics say that the Bush plan might allow as many as six other cities to miss that deadline. EPA Administrator William Reilly insisted the charge was wrong, but his rebuttal was a bit halfhearted. “I could understand,” he said, “how they could conclude that.”

Despite their misgivings, the environmentalists concede that in some respects the President’s plan has been improved. Perhaps anticipating an outcry from the left, Bush’s aides added unexpected new restrictions on coal- fired power plants that would require utilities to cap acid-rain-causing emissions after the year 2000. Such provisions help explain why industry largely withheld its endorsement last week. As an Administration official said, “If we’re taking fire from both sides, it tells you something about where we are on the political spectrum.”

But it also says something about how difficult it will be for Bush to break what he called the “environmental gridlock” on Capitol Hill now that the clean-air battle is joined. Twelve years have passed since Congress amended the Clean Air Act of 1970. If partisan bickering continues, it may be another year before the gridlock is broken. The hot air will have to dissipate before the clean air can return.

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