Clean Air and the Rights of Spring

This week was a time to celebrate the promise of cleaner air. EPA took the first steps toward righting numerous air pollution wrongs committed by the Bush administration.

Administrator Lisa Jackson announced the reconsideration of three harmful air pollution rules -- all concerning the Clean Air Act's new source review program in some respect -- issued by the Bush administration. One of the three was a classic midnight regulation that took effect literally at midnight on President Bush's last full day in office.

Better still, in two of the three cases Administrator Jackson declared that the harmful rules would be blocked in whole or in part pending EPA's reconsideration and while the agency hears from the public. And I have no quarrel with EPA's decision not to halt the third harmful rule because, as EPA pointed out, leaving that rule in place was still preferable to resurrecting the prior Bush administration standard that a court had already declared illegal. Natch.

Finally, EPA took the little noticed but very important step of agreeing to take back an air pollution permit that the Bush administration issued for a proposed coal-fired power plant in New Mexico. EPA filed a motion with its Environmental Appeals Board for "voluntary remand" of the air pollution permit that EPA's California regional office had issued to the Desert Rock Energy Company to build a 1,500 MW coal-fired power plant.

EPA had been slated to file a legal brief with the Board two days ago, defending the Bush administration's issuance of the permit against a challenge by the New Mexico Attorney General and several environmental groups (including NRDC). Instead, under Administrator Jackson's leadership, the regional office asked for leave to withdraw the permit based on multiple defects that the coal project's challengers had identified.

These defects included: (1) the pretense that analysis of coarse soot pollution could serve as a surrogate for analysis of fine soot pollution, despite fine soot particles being more deadly and subject to different air quality standards; (2) the failure to consider advanced pollution control equipment (called integrated gasification combined cycle) among the available pollution controls for the plant; (3) the issuance of the permit before conducting required consultations under the Endangered Species Act to assess potential hazards to species and critical habitat; (4) the adoption of certain air pollution limits before analyzing and establishing pollution controls for the plant's toxic air pollution, a maneuver designed to avoid opportunities for stricter, coordinated pollution controls; and (5) the failure to adequately consider impacts of the facility on soils, vegetation, visibility and other values.

Hopefully, the demise of this poorly conceived permit will lead to the development of truly clean renewable energy projects in the region in lieu of expanded coal-based development -- which already has greatly impaired air quality in the four corners area.

More generally, however, issue (2) could have the most sweeping implications, since coal-fired power plants have been urged to adopt gasification pollution control technology in combination with technology to control greenhouse gas pollution. Gasification technology is compatible with existing technologies for capturing CO2 emissions, which then can be stored underground to reduce the enormous toll that coal-fired power plants have on the planet's climate.

Issue (1) actually dovetailed with one of the harmful rules that Jackson agreed to halt and reconsider. That rule had given polluters the equivalent of a three-year amnesty period in which they needed not account for the full range of fine soot pollution when establishing pollution limits. The result? Higher soot pollution levels were allowed. So Jackson's decision to halt and reconsider that harmful rule carries the welcome consequence that new coal-fired power plants like Desert Rock and other big emitters will be required to protect the public against the full range of their harmful soot pollution.

NRDC had already challenged two of the three harmful rules in court, and the state of New Jersey had challenged the third rule. The Obama administration had asked to place those three lawsuits on hold while it considered requests to reconsider the rules.

So this week's announcement that the Bush rules would be reconsidered and halted, coupled with EPA's current decisions not to defend these rules in court, signals pretty strongly that the days are numbered for these dirty air rules.

There is still a lot of work to be done to deliver clean air to the public. Today our friends at the American Lung Association released their annual "State of the Air" report, revealing that six out of ten persons in the United States -- approximately 186 million Americans -- live in counties that have unhealthy levels of smog or soot pollution.

But in the meantime, while we keep working to ensure clean air for all Ameircans, let's celebrate the positive clean air news from EPA this week.