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Hold Firm on Diesel Rules

January 02, 2003

During his first two years in office, President Bush didn't have an environmental policy so much as an industrial one. From building roads in national forests (he's for it) to cutting emissions from power plants (against), his administration has favored loggers and energy companies over wildlife or clean air. So it's terrific, if surprising, to hear that the Environmental Protection Agency is starting 2003 by drafting rules that would, for the first time, restrict emissions from diesel-powered bulldozers, tractors and other heavy equipment used in agriculture, construction and mining.

Now if the administration only will stand up to industry pleas to weaken or delay those rules. The EPA is expected to formally propose changes this spring that would apply the same tough standards adopted under the Clinton administration for diesel big rigs and buses to these off-highway uses.

Held to a lower standard since 1977, these exempt diesel engines are, along with power plants and oceangoing tankers, among the largest polluters linked by scientists to lung cancer, asthma and other respiratory diseases. Even California, known for strict emissions restrictions, has been unable to regulate them since powerful lobbyists won a federal exemption from state controls.

By limiting particulates, nitrogen oxide and other pollutants, the EPA projects that the federal rules under discussion would prevent more than 8,000 premature deaths and hundreds of thousands of cases of respiratory illnesses each year. This translates into billions of dollars in savings on health care, a compelling side benefit at a time when medical costs are soaring almost as quickly as federal and state deficits.

But it also means that oil refiners and engine makers would have to spend more money developing low-sulfur diesel fuel and installing devices to treat exhaust gases, costs that would be passed on to farmers, miners and contractors. Those affected are clamoring to soften or delay the rules, never mind the 30 years they have had without any.

Tax credits to mitigate the pain are acceptable. Delayed or weakened rules are not. Even the Office of Management and Budget concedes that the health benefits far outweigh the costs to industry. And that's strictly the dollars-and-cents argument.

Mud-colored skies and kids who need inhalers make the moral case. Proximity to the 2004 election makes the political one. Surely the president's astute advisors recall how former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's 1995 campaign against environmental laws cost House Republicans votes.

The year before an election year is the one voters remember. Industrial lobbyists may not care for clean air. Voters do.

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