New York Times | The Fruits of Secrecy

Saturday, 08 November 2003 21:49 by: Anonymous

     The Fruits of Secrecy
     New York Times | Editorial

     Saturday 08 November 2003

     One of President Bush's first acts was to convene a task force to produce a national energy strategy. Led by Vice President Dick Cheney, the group met secretly with hundreds of witnesses. It heard from few environmentalists, but many lobbyists and executives from industries whose fortunes would be affected by any new policies. Despite lawsuits, the White House has refused to divulge the names of those privileged to get Mr. Cheney's ear. The results, however, have been plain as day: policies that broadly favor industry including big campaign contributors at the expense of the environment and public health.

     That unfortunate bias was demonstrated anew this week when the Environmental Protection Agency decided to drop investigations into more than 140 power plants, refineries and other industrial sites suspected of violating the Clean Air Act. The winner is industry; the loser, the public.

     The administration had already weakened the cases' legal foundation: a provision in the act that required companies to install up-to-date pollution controls whenever they increased harmful emissions by making major upgrades to their plants. The utilities had complained that the rule kept them from producing more power and discouraged investments in energy efficiency. Though the companies produced no convincing evidence, Mr. Cheney's task force swallowed the argument whole, and in due course it forced Christie Whitman, then head of the E.P.A., to jettison the rule in favor of a more permissive regime allowing companies to increase pollution without paying for new controls.

     The administration insists lamely that a handful of cases in litigation will be pursued. It seems clear, however, that the many investigations that have not reached litigation will be dropped altogether or at best restarted under the new rules rules so full of loopholes that it is highly unlikely that anybody will ever be found to have violated them.

     The administration swore to Congress months ago that this would not happen, that all the old investigations would be aggressively pursued under the old rules. So in addition to another rollback of environmental law, we have here another depressing example of official mendacity. Abandoning these cases is also deeply unfair to the companies that have already installed pollution controls in a good-faith effort to comply with the law.

     As is so often the case these days, the burden of defending the environment now falls to the states. Eliot Spitzer, the New York attorney general who has aggressively used the old rules to reduce pollution from power plants, has joined other states in suing the E.P.A. for weakening the law. He has also asked the E.P.A. to turn its files over to the states so they can pursue violators on their own. Finally, some in Congress are calling for an investigation into the administration's behavior. And why not? Congress has a right to be unhappy with a regulatory and judicial retreat that undermines much of what the Clean Air Act stands for.

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