For those who've been watching the Environmental Protection Agency under the Bush administration, you're familiar with the following pattern: the EPA, over the objection of its own scientists, issues a new rule that weakens environmental controls, but when pressed for an explanation, EPA officials explain that the new rule has nothing to do with easing the restrictions on polluters. No -- the change is merely a clarification, or a technical fix to some nonsense bureaucratic rule, or the inescapable conclusion drawn from a sober appraisal of the law.
And here we go again. Here's the rule change (note the dissent from EPA scientists):
The Bush administration is on the verge of implementing new air quality rules that will make it easier to build power plants near national parks and wilderness areas, according to rank-and-file agency scientists and park managers who oppose the plan.
The new regulations, which are likely to be finalized this summer, rewrite a provision of the Clean Air Act that applies to "Class 1 areas," federal lands that currently have the highest level of protection under the law. Opponents predict the changes will worsen visibility at many of the nation's most prized tourist destinations, including Virginia's Shenandoah, Colorado's Mesa Verde and North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt national parks.
And here is the explanation -- from a former EPA official who has departed to head the the environmental strategies group at the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani (yes, that Giuliani) no less:
Jeffrey R. Holmstead... helped initiate the rule change while heading the EPA's air and radiation office. He said agency officials became concerned that the EPA's scientific staff was taking "the most conservative approach" in predicting how much pollution new power plants would produce.
"The question from a policy perspective was: Do you need to have models based on the absolute worst-case conditions that were unlikely to ever occur in the real world?" Holmstead said in an interview Thursday. "This has to do with what [modeling] assumptions you're required to do. This is really a legal issue and a policy issue."
The new rule changes how pollution levels in parks are measured -- instead of frequent measures, the new rule "would average the levels over a year so that spikes in pollution levels would not violate the law." Just a common sense fix, you might say. But as one environmental advocate explains, "It's like if you're pulled over by a cop for going 75 miles per hour in a 55 miles-per-hour zone, and you say, 'If you look at how I've driven all year, I've averaged 55 miles per hour.'"
It looks like the EPA is really competing to not only be the most politicized of the agencies in the Bush Administration, but also to create the most lasting damage.