US Senate Stalls Air Rules Fix

December 8, 2003
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Senate blockage of the sweeping federal energy bill is holding up some temporary relief for West Michigan from clean-air regulations that business and political leaders believe would have smothered the region’s economic future.

Provisions in the bill would require the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to assess the effects on West Michigan of so-called transport pollution that blows across Lake Michigan from Chicago, Gary, Ind., and Milwaukee, and delay deadlines for meeting compliance with clean-air rules.

The provisions, pushed by U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, would grant the region the opportunity “to bring justice to our problems with transport pollution in West Michigan,” said Jared Rodriguez, political affairs manager for the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.

Under the federal Clean Air Act, the EPA is poised next April to designate several western Michigan counties — Kent, Ottawa, Muskegon and Allegan among them — as violators of federal clean-air standards, which would result in the imposition of new regulations to address ground-level ozone.

While EPA administrators readily conceded that the region’s ozone problems largely stem from transport pollution, there’s little they can do about it. The Clean Air Act provides the EPA no ability to take into account the effects transport pollution has on a downwind region’s air quality, other than to grant a 5 percent reduction in federal standards.

At a meeting last month with local leaders, regional EPA administrators promised to minimize any new regulations so as not to harm the region’s economy.

While the ultimate solution to the issue rests with Congress changing the Clean Air Act, business and political leaders welcome the measures Upton was able to have inserted into the energy bill. They fear that costly new regulations such as automotive tailpipe testing and tougher emissions standards for industry would hurt West Michigan’s business climate, driving investments and job creation elsewhere.

“We think this is a great first step,” Rodriguez said. “It’s going to help us in the short term a little and in the long term quite a lot.”

But that potential help is stalled in the U.S. Senate, where Democrats have blocked passage of the energy bill, citing a variety of concerns, through a filibuster that has prevented a vote from occurring.

Sean Bonyun, communications director for Upton, expects Senate Republicans to try again early next year to win passage of the energy bill. Republicans only need to pick up two more votes to block the filibuster and vote on the energy bill, which Bonyun describes as “one of the top two pieces of legislation” on the agenda in Washington, D.C.

“They’re so close to the end zone, they’ll make a big push in January,” Bonyun said.

Any concessions Republicans give on the bill could be addressed in future legislation, Bonyun said.

U.S. Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Holland, sees another possible route to win the energy bill’s passage via a return to a House-Senate conference committee to reconcile the concerns of Democrats.

The provisions in the bill would postpone new regulations for addressing West Michigan’s ozone problems and establish a two-year EPA demonstration project to examine the effects of transport pollution.

Upton calls his amendment to the energy bill “a logical, common-sense solution that gets to the heart of the matter.”

“Without the demonstration project, it seems the only way to comply with the new standard is to build huge fans on the shores of Lake Michigan and blow back the pollution to where it came from,” Upton said.

His amendments to the energy bill also would delay deadlines for West Michigan to attain compliance with clean-air standards until after communities upwind have reduced their pollution levels.

Hoekstra hopes the demonstration project will set the stage for subsequent legislative changes to the Clean Air Act that will enable the EPA to weigh how transport pollution affects a downwind region’s air quality.

“It’s a medium-term solution but it’s not a final step. Right now they (the EPA) don’t have a lot of latitude,” Hoekstra said. “Hopefully the EPA can come up with a good study and say, ‘Here’s how transport pollution works and here’s what we should be doing in those communities affected by transport.’”           

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