Through a series of proposals that will reshape federal environmental policy, the Bush Administration is gradually reversing the destructive regulatory legacy of the Clinton years.
Over the last several weeks, federal agencies have announced reforms to several controversial environmental laws that have stymied domestic energy development, rational pollution control by coal-fired utilities, prudent management of the nations forests, and multiple-use of federal lands.
The administration is taking aim at the so-called "Magna Carta" of environmental statutes-the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Passed in 1969, NEPA is an overarching law that affects environmental policies at every federal agency.
Basically, any major federal project-as well as those initiated by private industry acting on federal lands-that has environmental impact triggers NEPA. NEPA entails a costly series of regulatory requirements, including highly detailed environmental impact statements that can take years to complete.
For over a decade, greens have harassed energy companies by filing a barrage of costly NEPA-based lawsuits, delaying, or even blocking, energy production and development, making the U.S. more dependent on foreign energy sources.
To put a stop to this, the administration has formed a multi-agency NEPA task force that is examining ways to block frivolous lawsuits, and expedite (and in some cases, eliminate) NEPA reviews of forest management plans, as well as oil and gas development projects in the Rocky Mountains.
The administration also released a proposal in November to reform New Source Review (NSR), a confusing component of the Clean Air Act. Under NSR, before a utility or refinery makes a so-called "major modification," which theoretically results in a net increase in emissions, it must obtain a permit from EPA. But if a plant merely undergoes "routine maintenance," such as changing worn-out tubes on boilers, no permit is necessary.
But the Clinton EPA defied the longstanding definition of routine maintenance. In 1999, EPA filed lawsuits against 51 power plants in 10 states.
"In 1999, EPA simply abandoned its historic enforcement practices and, with no warning or opportunity for public input, drastically reinterpreted the NSR program to prohibit the very same routine activities the agency until then had condoned," said Quin Shea, executive director of environmental policy at the Edison Electric Institute.
EPA alleges that the minor changes at those predominantly coal-fired plants amounted to major modifications. But as one industry lobbyist explained, the lawsuits have no legal merit, and are designed to exterminate the coal industry: "These lawsuits are a concerted attempt by EPA and their environmental allies to shut down utilities that use coal, which is a hugely important part of our electricity fuel mix, or make running them extremely costly."
Many of those cases are still wending their way through the courts, imposing huge legal costs on utilities, which inevitably will be passed on to rate-paying customers. In the hope of ending some of the legal uncertainties surrounding NSR, the Bush Administration promulgated a series of changes to provide plants with greater flexibility in modernizing their plants. It also promised to clarify what constitutes routine maintenance. (Even as the administration promulgates a rule on routine maintenance, which could take several months, lawsuits filed by radical greens and state attorneys general from the Northeast could take years to sort out.)
In a move that delighted Westerners, the Interior Department in November also unveiled a new compromise allowing snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. The action overturns a ban on snowmobiles in the parks imposed by the Clinton Administration.
Notably, snowmobiles have access to less than 1% of Yellowstone, and have never caused a violation of the Clean Air Act. Yet that didnt stop four environmental groups from suing Interior to block the new rule. Even if those groups prevail, which is not out of the question, Westerners say the Interior decision is a victory, demonstrating that the Bush Administration strongly opposes environmental extremists who seek to shut down all human activity in the region.