coalSometimes, an article is so well written that it’s pointless to try to summarize it. This week’s lead in the New Yorker‘s Talk of the Town is one such article. Writer Elizabeth Kolbert succinctly captures the extent, the cynicism, and the atrocity of George Bush’s war on the environment in six short paragraphs. Read it here before it disappears into the PPV archives, buy a subscription, and/or read it below.

Each year, the Detroit Edison plant in Monroe, Michigan, burns roughly eight million tons of coal. That is enough to generate electricity for three million homes and also to make the plant one of the nationís most extravagant polluters. In 2001, the last year for which complete data are available, Monroeís smokestacks emitted, among other things: more than a hundred thousand tons of sulfur dioxide (the principal pollutant in acid rain), nearly forty-six thousand tons of nitrous oxide (the chief ingredient of smog), and seventeen and a half million tons of carbon dioxide (the major culprit in global warming). Widely accepted statistical models project that the plant will cause some three hundred premature deaths annually, from ailments like lung disease and stroke. All of which makes President Bushís visit to Monroe last week to tout his latest air-quality initiatives either horribly ill-advised or, if you prefer, perversely appropriate.

Even in the catalogue of depredations that is the Bush Administrationís environmental recordóa list that includes the decision to reclassify various forms of mining waste as ìfillî so that it can be dumped in valleys and streams; the attempt to open up millions of acres of public lands (including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) for oil exploration; and the so-called Healthy Forests initiative, whose major beneficiary is the logging industryóthe Presidentís assault on the Clean Air Act stands out. When Congress approved the act, back in 1970, its goal was explicitly to prevent plants like Detroit Edisonís from being built. Because of the difficultyóthe expense, reallyóof retrofitting existing plants, Congress granted them an exemption but some years later stipulated that if changes were made that went beyond ìroutine maintenanceî the plants would have to be equipped with up-to-date pollution controls. In resisting this requirement, known as ìnew source review,î or N.S.R., plant operators have over the years tried to define as ìroutine maintenanceî projects that were essentially rebuilding efforts. (In one spectacular example, the Tennessee Valley Authority labelled as ìroutine maintenanceî a project that required constructing an entire miniature monorail system.)

Then, last New Yearís Eve, the Bush Administration proposed new rules that broadened the definition of ìroutine maintenanceî to allow operators to make, in effect, any changes they want to their plants without installing new pollution controls. These rules were finalized just before Labor Day weekend, and, not coincidentally, before Governor Mike Leavitt, of Utah, the Presidentís nominee to be the next E.P.A. administrator, was forced to take a position on them. (At an E.P.A. hearing in Salt Lake City this past spring, Utahís air-quality director labelled the Administrationís plans for N.S.R. ìa disastrous approach to managing air quality,î ìa step backward,î and a ìtrain wreck.î) According to environmentalists, the new N.S.R. regulations would let the Monroe plant emit about forty thousand additional tons of sulfur dioxide a year.

Critics argue that the new rules represent yet another payback from the Administration to a friendly industryóthe Times called them a ìgiveaway to Mr. Bushís corporate allies.î Certainly the paper trail is suggestive. In March, 2001, an official of the Southern Company, the owner of twenty-three coal-fired power plants, a defendant in several lawsuits that the Clinton Administration brought under the Clean Air Act, and a major Republican donor, wrote to Vice-President Cheneyís energy task force urging ìreformî of the N.S.R. regulations. Precisely such a ìreformî effort was recommended in the task forceís final report, and the changes made to the regulations last month can be considered its fruits. (The Southern Company memo was made public thanks to prolonged litigation by the Natural Resources Defense Council.)

What the new N.S.R. rules finally reflect, though, even beyond undue corporate influence, is the Bush Administrationís casual relationship to cause and effect. You can say that your three-hundred-and-fifty-billion-dollar tax cut is aimed at the middle class, but when the top two-tenths of a per cent of the population stands to gain more than the bottom seventy per cent itís not the middle class thatís going to benefit. Similarly, you can claim that tax cuts pay for themselves, but, four hundred and eighty billion dollarsí worth of red ink later, there is, it would seem, something off about the calculation. And you can argue that dismantling pollution laws will produce cleaner air, but the fish in acidified lakes know (if thatís the right word) different. The companion piece to the new N.S.R. regulations is a package of bills that the President callsóin the Orwellian spirit of Healthy Forestsóhis Clear Skies initiative. The Administration likes to assert that the initiative, if approved, would reduce power-plant emissions by seventy per cent by the year 2018. In fact, the initiative weakens several laws that are already on the books, and that would reduce the same pollutants by a greater amount in a shorter period of time.

Last week, by way of defending the new N.S.R. regulations, Bush invoked the progress that has been made since the Clean Air Act was passed. ìOur economy has grown one hundred and sixty-four per cent in three decades,î he said. ìThatís pretty good growth. And yet, according to a report that the E.P.A. is releasing today, air pollution from six major pollutants is down by forty-eight per cent during that period of time.î Citing the success of the Clean Air Act in order to justify gutting it makes, on the face of it, no sense whatsoever; if thereís any lesson here, itís that tough pollution standards work, and that they are perfectly consistent with a robust economy. But the weakness of the Presidentís arguments only makes the broader message of his trip to Monroe that much plainer: nothing is going to stand in the way of the Administrationís environmental ‘program’, least of all logic.

ó Elizabeth Kolbert (The New Yorker, September 29, 2003)

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  1. Indigo Ocean says:

    Thanks for the link. I posted to it on my blog as well.

  2. Priceless. I’m linking to this one; thanks.

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