WASHINGTON — At the Bush administration's direction, the Environmental Protection Agency is working on a new rule that would weaken pollution regulations for power plants, allowing them to increase emissions without adding controls.
EPA officials have been working on a fast track to meet a Saturday deadline, but many of them are arguing against changing the rule, said former EPA attorney John Walke and an EPA career official who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because the official wasn't authorized to make statements.
They said that the EPA was expected to decide in November on another eleventh-hour rule that would allow more power plants to be built near national parks and wilderness areas.
Power companies have sought the rule about power plant emissions for many years, and it was part of Vice President Dick Cheney's 2001 energy plan. Rules finalized more than 60 days before the administration leaves office are harder for the next administration to undo.
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The Clean Air Act requires older plants that have their lives extended with new equipment to install pollution-control technology if their emissions increase. The rule change would allow plants to measure emissions on an hourly basis, rather than their total yearly output. This way, plants could run for more hours and increase overall emissions without exceeding the threshold that would require additional pollution controls.
The Edison Electric Institute, an association of shareholder-owned electric companies that represents about 70 percent of the U.S. electric-power industry, told the EPA that it supports changing the rule because improvements at plants would allow them to produce more energy with less fuel and in this way reduce emissions per unit of electrical output.
The EPA official said that concerns in the agency were that the analysis justifying the rule change was weak and the administration didn't plan to make the analysis public for a comment period, as is customary.
The EPA originally argued that changing the rule wouldn't seriously harm the environment because another law, the Clean Air Interstate Rule, reduced power plant emissions, offsetting any increase under the new rule. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit vacated the interstate rule, however, and the EPA was stuck with having to develop a new analysis to justify the change.
Walke, who's now the director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's clean air program, said that EPA officials in two departments told him that they'd been instructed to finalize the rule by Saturday. When such rules are made, it's common practice for the White House and the vice president's office to give the EPA their views before the EPA chief makes a decision.
Walke said that two EPA officials told him that EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson and Robert Meyers, the assistant administrator in charge of air issues, didn't agree with the new rule. EPA spokesman Jonathan Schradar said they hadn't made a decision yet and that he had no comment about their views.
Schradar said the EPA was committed to finalizing the rule by the time Bush left office in January. He said work was continuing on it and that "rumors are exaggerated" about a Saturday deadline.
The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that the administration was moving to adopt the changes to the power-plant emissions rule.
The EPA is under no obligation to reveal internal deliberations, so in many cases the public never knows what objections may have been raised.
The White House wouldn't comment on its views about changing the rule, Kristen Hellmer, a spokeswoman for the White House's Council on Environmental Quality, said Monday.
Walke charged in a comment to the EPA that the rule would amount to a "parting gift to the utility industry."
The rule change applies to old plants that are expanded or upgraded to prolong their lives. The changes can make them more efficient but not as clean as they'd be with modern pollution controls.
The emissions bring smog, acid rain and particulates. The Bush administration argues that carbon dioxide, which power plants also emit, shouldn't be regulated under the Clean Air Act.
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