EPA Change Raises Specter of Eco-Slackening ; Congress Likely to Ease Conservation Laws, but the GOP's Past Offers a Cautionary Tale

Article excerpt

The recent elections may have cleared the air on who'll be in charge in Washington for the next two years. But the Republican near- sweep is likely to increase political fog over environmental protection and energy generation.

GOP control of both House and Senate gives President Bush freer rein to push for the more relaxed rules and regulations he prefers - particularly in areas that impact manufacturing and domestic energy production. The practicalities of the fight against terrorism, heightened potential for war, and the need to revive the economy add to his philosophical bent in this direction.

But recent political history cautions against overreaching on such issues. In the mid-1990s, Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich and others pushed a "Contract with America" that appeared to many Americans (Republicans as well as Democrats) to undermine environmental laws. Though the contract didn't pinpoint the environment, its principles of small government and private- property protection undermined some conservation laws - and tarnished the GOP's environmental image. Within a couple of elections, Mr. Gingrich and the Contract were history.

In his first major move on the issue since this month's elections, Mr. Bush has proposed loosening federal regulations on air pollution. Until now, older power-generating plants, refineries, and factories (those built before the Clean Air Act amendments of 1977) had to meet tougher air-quality standards whenever they modernized their plants. Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency announced new rules that will ease that requirement.

In the long run, says EPA administrator Christie Whitman, it will actually "increase energy efficiency and decrease air pollution" by making it less onerous to upgrade power plants and factories.

The move was hailed by many business and labor organizations. "This is a good first step in reforming a seriously flawed regulatory program," says Bruce Josten, executive vice president of the United States Chamber of Commerce.

But environmentalists see it another way. "EPA is stripping away vital, cost-effective clean air measures that have protected Americans from the harmful effects of industrial air pollution for a quarter century," says Vickie Patton, senior attorney with the advocacy group Environmental Defense in New York. Democratic Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and John Kerry of Massachusetts (both of whom are possible challengers to Bush in 2004) say Ms. Whitman should resign.

Others call it a "payoff" to 13 large electric utilities that gave more than $4 million to Republican congressional candidates in mid-term elections (more than twice the amount given to Democrats).

In any case, Bush can expect stronger support on Capitol Hill. …