WASHINGTON (AP) _ In a victory for energy producers, the Environmental Protection Agency will relax air pollution rules to make it easier for utilities to upgrade and expand their coal-burning power plants.
EPA's long-awaited announcement, which senior Bush administration officials said was expected Thursday, will ease some of the most stringent measures that environmental groups say are a key element in forcing dirty, older plants to cut emissions by up to 95 percent.
In proposing to revise the so-called New Source Review program under the Clean Air Act, EPA Administrator Christie Whitman is tackling one of the most contentious air pollution issues facing the Bush administration. Her agency wants to give industry greater flexibility in expanding electricity production without having to install additional emissions controls.
EPA spokesman Joe Martyak would say only that EPA planned an announcement Thursday.
The senior administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity late Wednesday, said the changes would increase energy efficiency as well as encourage emissions reductions, pollution prevention projects, and investments in new technologies and facilities.
Environmentalists have maintained that the current regulations, pressed in lawsuits filed by the Clinton administration, ensure that utilities install additional pollution controls when they modernize or expand the plants to produce more electricity.
``However they try to spin it, the Bush team is looking to adopt industry-sought changes that would weaken current clean-air protections,'' said Frank O'Donnell, executive director of the Clean Air Trust, an environmental group. ``In effect, they would be creating new loopholes that would permit big polluters to continue polluting and even increase pollution.''
The utility industry, buoyed when Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force began re-examining the air pollution regulations more than 15 months ago, long has argued that the regulations inhibit expansion of facilities.
``At the end of the day, power plant operators need to be able to run their facilities without the perpetual threat of litigation,'' said Dan Reidinger, a spokesman for Edison Electric Institute, a trade group for investor-owned utilities.
Changing the New Source Review requirements, environmentalists say, threatens to undermine lawsuits filed during the Clinton administration against a group of utilities and 51 power plants. The suits had alleged the plants were violating the Clean Air Act by making illegal modifications that produced more electricity and more pollution.
EPA and the Justice Department have threatened heavy fines on utilities unless they spend tens of billions of dollars to more strictly control emissions of acid rain-causing sulfur dioxide, smog-causing nitrogen oxides and mercury, a toxic chemical that contaminates waterways.
Environmentalists and state attorneys general from the Northeast have said they would challenge in court any substantial weakening of the program. An easing of the rules, they argued, will produce millions of tons of additional pollution from older coal-burning plants and amount to a rollback of the Clean Air Act. The Northeastern states say pollution from power plants in the Midwest drifts eastward.
While Cheney's task force urged that the overhaul be completed in 90 days, the issue became embroiled in lengthy internal debate over how far the agency should go in easing requirements for the utilities. Whitman said the administration wanted modest changes while the Energy Department and some White House presidential aides had argued for stronger action.
Administration officials said the EPA plans would include giving utilities the ability to expand production by raising the threshold that would trigger a requirement for new pollution controls. They said EPA also proposes to:
_Let utilities use pollution levels from any two consecutive years during the past 10 years to establish an emissions baseline that will determine how much additional pollution will be allowed before the controls kick in.
_Clarify the definition of ``routine'' repairs, rewriting a policy that has deterred companies from conducting needed repairs, which creates pollution problems at the plants.