Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Green rules seen on "chopping block" post-Rita


Green rules seen on "chopping block" post-Rita

By Chris Baltimore

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - House Republicans on Wednesday will launch a rapid-fire assault against environmental protections on the pretext of helping the U.S. oil and gas industry recover from hurricane damage, environmental groups charge.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee and the House Resources Committee are holding separate meetings to finalize legislation on Wednesday, with the aim of combining them into a single energy bill for the full House to debate next week.

The resources panel, led by Richard Pombo of California, wants to lift a ban on Florida offshore drilling, promote oil shale and sell a dozen national parks for energy development.

"This really has very little to do with the hurricanes or relief efforts or even refiners. This is deregulation pure and simple," said John Walke of Natural Resources Defense Council.

Texan Joe Barton's energy committee wants to expand U.S. gasoline production by loosening federal rules that limit pollution when refineries or coal-fired power plants are expanded. U.S. gasoline supplies have tightened since hurricanes Katrina and Rita roared across the U.S. Gulf Coast, closing up to one-fourth of the nation's refining capacity.

House Republicans received a thumbs up from President George W. Bush on Monday when he said environmental rules and paperwork are obstacles holding up U.S. refinery expansions.

Bush specifically criticized the relatively obscure "new source review" rule administered by the Environmental Protection Agency as part of the Clean Air Act. It aims to protect public health by ensuring that refinery expansions do not increase acid rain and smog.

Environmentalists perked up their ears at Bush's remarks, noting that he rarely mentions the program.

"You know darn well that the president doesn't have a clue what new source review is," said Frank O'Donnell of Clean Air Watch. "It's clear that there's a coordinated effort between the White House and Congress to put key environmental protections on the chopping block."

Barton said his bill would help U.S. refiners gird against another natural disaster like the recent hurricanes, which highlighted the U.S. dearth of refining capacity.

In an interview, Barton said new source review "was a tool to blackmail industry" into deferring plant upgrades.

"We don't want more emissions but we do want to give existing industrial facilities the ability to retrofit and modernize without going through a laborious permitting process," Barton said.

A draft copy of Barton's bill would codify an EPA proposal that allows plants to expand their facilities without triggering anti-pollution rules, NRDC'S Walke said. That proposal was frozen by a federal judge in a lawsuit brought by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.

"If the new Barton rule were adopted it would set us back 40 or 50 years," said Judith Enck, a Spitzer aide.

It would also adopt a utility-friendly strategy that says the anti-pollution rules only apply if expansion projects boost hourly emission rates, not overall plant emissions. Using that test, a federal appeals court in June ruled that Duke Power did not violate the law by expanding eight North Carolina plants without adding expensive anti-pollution devices.

Pombo's separate bill would open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling as well as letting states opt out of an offshore oil leasing ban. He also wants to sell 15 national parks for energy or commercial development, including the Mary McLeod Bethune House in Washington, D.C.