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Extreme Pollution Agenda in Senate Targets Life-Saving Smog & Soot Standards

John Walke

Posted November 8, 2011 in Curbing Pollution, Health and the Environment, U.S. Law and Policy

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Last week the U.S. Senate rejected an extreme agenda disguised as a jobs and transportation bill. This unsuccessful effort was founded on the absurd notion that more pollution would mean more jobs and that what the country really needs is more of the Congressional paralysis and obstructionism that already wearies and disgusts Americans.

This week, the Senate will vote again on repealing life-saving pollution standards—this time a Tea-Party backed attack on the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule that keeps out-of-state smog and soot pollution from fouling the air of neighboring communities. Once again, the dirty air champions are going to talk about jobs, but the public already knows what the Senate affirmed last week—dirty air and dirty water are not a jobs plan.

Last week's failed legislation was Senator Orrin Hatch’s (R-UT) Long-Term Surface Extension Act of 2011—a witch’s brew of Tea Party House Republican bromides about job creation that in reality were just poisonous attempts to:

  • kill health safeguards against mercury and toxic pollution from cement plants, incinerators and industrial boilers;
  • quietly pass Senator Rand Paul's (R-KY) truly radical REINS Act [pdf], which would allow just one chamber of Congress to block law enforcement of existing statutory safeguards, from clean air and clean water protections to food safety standards to Wall Street reform; and
  • just as quietly pass the insidious Regulatory Time-Out Act of 2011, which would indiscriminately and nonsensically block the most significant health and environmental safeguards, financial responsibility reforms and the like for one year, notwithstanding how much damage and destruction to the American people or economy would result from blocking those safeguards.

This week, Senator Paul plans more of the same, with a resolution under the Congressional Review Act to void EPA’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule. These standards will clean up dangerous smog and soot pollution from the oldest, dirtiest coal-burning power plants in the eastern half of the United States, saving lives and creating jobs by cleaning up pollution.

EPA has projected that these clean air standards will prevent every year [pdf]:

  • up to 34,000 premature deaths;
  • 15,000 nonfatal heart attacks;
  • 400,000 cases of asthma attacks; and
  • 1.8 million days when people miss work or school.

Moreover, these health safeguards will deliver up to $280 billion in annual benefits to the American people compared to $2.4 billion in compliance costs to polluting coal-burning power plants, yielding benefits that outweigh costs by an astonishing 116 to 1. Many politicians and industry lobbyists claim to support benefit-cost analysis; how much would health benefits to Americans have to outweigh polluter compliance costs before Senator Paul and his resolution's co-sponsors would support clean air safeguards? 200 to 1? 500 to 1?

Further proof for this extreme agenda is shown by the zealous irresponsibility of Senator Paul's chosen weapon, a Congressional Review Act vote that repeals not only the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule but also prohibits EPA from adopting “substantially similar” health protections.

The Congressional Review Act is a nuclear bomb with radioactive spillover consequences: it voids not just the targeted safeguards, like CSAPR, but also prohibits EPA from adopting similar protections, such as a substitute for the Bush administration's 2005 Clean Air Interstate Rule. A federal court overturned [pdf] this rule in 2008. CSAPR responds to the court order to reduce smog and soot pollution from power plants in a more protective manner that complies with the Clean Air Act.

If a Congressional Review Act vote abolished CSAPR and blocked EPA from re-issuing a similar rule, this would make it extremely unlikely that EPA even could re-issue clean air standards achieving the same emissions reductions as the weaker Clean Air Interstate Rule; the two rules are substantially similar in numerous respects, including the problems they target, the states, polluters and pollutants covered, the rules’ underlying modeling and rationale, the legal authority and regulatory structure etc. The result would be millions more tons of smog and soot pollution from dirty power plants.

All of this explains why Senator Paul’s extreme pollution agenda already is attracting bipartisan opposition from more moderate and responsible members, with five or more Republican Senators expected to oppose the CRA resolution.

The White House's Heather Zichal, Deputy Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change, has authored an eloquent and ringing endorsement of the cross-state rule. One hopes this important backing represents the prelude to a White House Statement of Administration Policy recommending a presidential veto of Paul's resolution, adding to the laudable record of SAPs opposing House dirty air attacks this year.

The greater question remains, however, when Congressional obstructionists finally will abandon their stalling and ideological pollution plans in favor of getting down to the business of moving the country forward to a healthy and clean energy future.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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