Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Idaho should note court's rebuke of EPA

From the outset of his presidency, President Bush has never been coy about his disdain for requiring smokestack industries to install emissions controls to improve air quality and reduce contaminants that cause global warming.

So, a stiffly worded rebuke of the Environmental Protection Agency last week by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia was an unambiguous jolt for the president's environmental indifference.

Idaho should take note. The three-judge panel ruled that the Clean Air Act's "plain language" requires a stricter approach to inspecting systems and emissions of coal-fired power plants.

It was good news for opponents of a coal-fired power plant outside Jerome that is at the heart of a growing controversy in south-central Idaho, where emissions would drift over several counties, polluting water and air. The plant is a hot topic in the Idaho Legislature, where some lawmakers are pushing for a law giving the state power to control and site such plants.

Victors in last week's decision were more than a dozen states and several environmental groups that jointly sued EPA. They hailed the ruling as a setback in "the concerted efforts by the Bush administration to dismantle the Clean Air Act."

Dismantling federal programs piecemeal, rather than attempting to abolish them, has been the administration's strategy. EPA simply issued a new "rule" in 2003 exempting plant equipment changes from environmental review. The federal judges described EPA's maneuver as something out of Alice in Wonderland's "Humpty-Dumpty world."

This brings us back to Idaho and the proposed Sempra power plant in Jerome County. If federal judges are willing to rebuke and restrain the EPA for its casual approach to air pollution and insist that EPA stick to higher standards of enforcement for emissions, why have Idaho lawmakers been so ho-hum toward pleas for stricter state involvement?

The Sempra plant's benefits to Idaho are unconvincing as well as scant. The plant would generate power for export to other states and shower several counties with emissions at considerable cost to the air and water quality that earn Idaho's environmental reputation—and its tourist industry—such high marks.

Boosters of the Sempra plant are hypnotized by the prospect of jobs and local taxes. However, if the federal court ruling on EPA is an indicator, Sempra may have a rough go in defending itself in any lawsuit by arguing that that jobs and taxes are more important than emissions that can poison the environment.

The court's ruling offers hope that sanity may yet return to the state and national debates over energy production.

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