The Bush administration's "Clear Skies" proposal to rewrite the nation's chief air-quality rules for power plants would not reduce pollution as much as existing Clean Air Act regulations, according to an interim report by the National Academy of Sciences.
The findings prompted sparring in Washington, with some critics of the administration's environmental policies asserting that the changes would weaken clean air rules, and some energy industry groups arguing that the report was being exaggerated.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials, meanwhile, maintained that proposed changes to air-quality rules would do a better job of reducing pollution than the status quo.
The National Academies report, written by an independent panel of university professors and researchers, stated that Clear Skies, currently under consideration by Congress, is less stringent than a set of regulations known as New Source Review. The New Source Review rules, in effect since 1977, require power plants to install costly upgrades to reduce emissions if the plants are being upgraded.
The report also said the existing regulations are stronger than the Clean Air Interstate Rule, another set of proposed changes that the EPA is considering in case Congress does not pass the Clear Skies legislation.
It is "unlikely that Clear Skies would result in emissions limits at individual sources that are tighter than those achieved when NSR is triggered," the report stated.
"The Clean Air Interstate Rule also is unlikely to require sources to do more than is required by NSR," it added. The final report is not scheduled to be completed until the end of 2005.
The Clear Skies legislation would establish a national "cap and trade" program for three major pollutants -- mercury, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide. The proposal aims to reduce emissions of the pollutants from utilities by 70% over the next two decades.
The EPA established a similar program to address acid rain a decade ago, and although many environmentalists opposed it at the time, it proved largely successful. However, critics say a similar program established to reduce smog in Southern California has not reduced pollution quickly enough.
Under cap and trade programs, a ceiling on polluting emissions is established. Companies that reduce more than their share of the cap receive emissions credits, which they can sell to companies that exceed their limits.
The report was "further proof that the Bush administration has been recklessly tinkering with the Clean Air Act for several years and wants to go even further," Sen. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.) told Associated Press.
Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, an industry lobbying group, argued that the changes would result in more pollution reductions than under current rules, which may appear tougher but in practice often lead to long legal battles.
"There aren't the resources or time or patience to sue every power plant in America," he said. "By contrast, the Clear Skies program is implemented in one fell swoop across the country."