MONROE, Mich. — President Bush adopted a new tack Monday in arguing for more lenient pollution regulations, saying the need to create jobs should not take a back seat to protecting the environment.
"When we talk about environmental policy in this Bush administration, we don't just talk about clean air, we also talk about jobs. We can do both," the president told cheering workers at the Monroe Edison coal-fired power plant about 40 miles south of Detroit.
The president's new emphasis on jobs in the debate over environmental policy comes as poll numbers show Americans increasingly concerned about job losses since the 2001 recession. Analysts say the high unemployment rate is a major liability for the president as he seeks reelection.
Since Bush came into office, the Environmental Protection Agency has made it easier for utilities and other companies to avoid installing pollution-control equipment under the terms of the 1970 Clean Air Act.
Bush said his administration put new rules in place last month to "clarify and simplify" a cumbersome review process for equipment changes at power plants. The rule changes relax requirements that companies install state-of-the-art pollution controls when they increase their production capacity.
"We simplified the rules. We made them easy to understand. We trust the people in this plant to make the right decisions," the president said.
Environmental groups say the new rules make it easier for utilities to keep polluting.
"I'm stunned that they picked the Monroe plant as a place to talk about clean air. It's one of the dirtiest in the country,'' said Eric Schaeffer, former head of enforcement for the EPA who now directs the Rockefeller Family Fund's environmental integrity project.
Both sides use the 3,000-megawatt Monroe plant -- the second-largest coal-fired plant in the country -- in the debate over environmental regulation.
Bush blamed EPA regulations for forcing Detroit Edison to delay upgrading two turbines at the Monroe plant that would have made the plant more efficient without boosting pollution.
"The old regulations on the books made it difficult to either protect the ... environment or grow the economy," the president said. "Therefore, I wanted to get rid of them. I'm interested in job creation and clean air, and I believe we can do both."
But environmental groups point out that under the former rules, the plant was not prevented from upgrading the new turbines. In fact, the Clinton-era EPA encouraged Detroit Edison to proceed with its plans to replace the turbine rotors.
Schaeffer, who was with the EPA at the time, said one reason it took 11 months for the agency to approve the project was that the power company deliberately delayed providing requested data.
"What Detroit Edison wanted was a blanket exception because they didn't want to worry about whether the project would increase emissions," Schaeffer said. "They were always trying to find ways to beat the rap."
Bush said air pollution data released Monday demonstrated that the country was making good progress in cleaning the air. He said the new EPA figures showed that since the Clean Air Act was passed, emissions of six major pollutants had fallen by 48% while economic output had increased 164%.
"Since 1974, the power generated from here has increased by 22%
Environmental groups criticized Bush's argument as backward.
"President Bush used a bizarre argument today in calling for a weakening of the Clean Air Act: He noted that the Clean Air Act is working," said Frank O'Donnell, a spokesman for the Clean Air Trust.
Winston H. Hickox, California Environmental Protection Agency secretary, issued a statement saying, "This is preposterous rhetoric from a federal administration that is failing on both the environment and the jobs front."
The new EPA data indicate that pollution from power plants has continued to decline as a result of a variety of regulatory programs designed in response to 1990 Clean Air Act amendments. Power plants emitted 41% less acid rain-producing sulfur dioxide and 33% less smog-producing nitrogen oxides in 2002 than in 1990, according to the data.
"President Bush is committed to continuing protection of the nation's environment, and we will build on this good news," said the EPA's acting administrator, Marianne Lamont Horinko.
Anthony Earley, chairman of Detroit Edison, said the former EPA regulations were so confusing that they forced the plant to delay installation of the turbine rotors by as much as five years.
"You're forcing us to run less-efficient, less-clean plants," Earley said. "It incrementally reduces the reliability of the electric grid."
Senior administration officials acknowledged that there was no direct link between pollution controls and last month's blackout, which resulted from energy transmission problems, not production failures.
Bush ended his day in Drexel Hill, Pa., where he attended a $2,000-a-plate fund-raiser for his 2004 reelection campaign; 775 guests were expected to raise $1.25 million.
Times staff writers Elizabeth Shogren and Richard Simon contributed to this report.