Advice Unvarnished -- and Unsolicited

Letters between governmental groups show that Bush's "unvarnished advice" was not coming from anyone interested in clean air.

If you've followed the semi-scandal over the Bush administration's energy policy, you may have wondered about the "unvarnished advice" administration officials say they received while crafting the policy. While no public agency has received access to that information, a couple of letters sent between governmental bodies over the past year indicate from whom Bush did not want input.

On April 27, 2001 -- shortly before Bush announced the policy -- Tom Gibson, an associate administrator with the Environmental Protection Agency, sent a letter to Andrew Lundquist, executive director of the National Energy Policy Development group, attacking what was then the NEPD draft report on national energy policy. Gibson claimed that much of its language was inaccurate and inappropriately implicated environmental programs as a major cause of supply constraints in U.S. oil refining capacity. Despite previous complaints about the language, Gibson wrote, "our concerns have not been addressed." (EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman has since said she is "satisfied" with the final version of the energy policy.)

Gibson's letter also argues that, despite Bush's claims to the contrary, environmental regulations are not the reason the U.S. relies so heavily on imported oil. Instead, refineries were at over-capacity from 1978 to 1993, giving oil companies no incentive to invest in new refineries. "To draw the conclusion that environmental requirements are a primary cause of this trend is, to our knowledge, not supported by any study," Gibson wrote. In response to NEPD claims that regulations are too costly, Gibson quoted a 1997 Energy Information Administration report documenting that "pollution operating costs have been and continue to be a small part of the overall operating costs."

In a different letter sent to EPA Director Whitman on Jan. 23, 2002, representatives of the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators (STAPPA) and the Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials (ALAPCO) complained that changes made under Bush in New Source Review (NSR) policy have taken place behind closed doors. A Clean Air Act provision, NSR requires power plants previously "grandfathered" out of Act regulations to come into compliance if they make major modifications that increase emissions (see "Bush's Xmas Stocking: Burning Coal?" Dec. 28).

STAPPA and ALAPCO both say they have long supported improvements in the NSR program, and became frustrated when discussions with the EPA on that subject ceased last year. Only several weeks before sending Whitman the letter, STAPPA and ALAPCO had learned that an NSR reform effort had continued -- "but without our participation," and "from news reports and informal information sources." Bush's proposals "would substantially weaken the environmental protections offered by the NSR program," they concluded.

A report titled "Smokestack Rollback: How the Bush administration's Clean Air Act proposals will increase refinery pollution and jeopardize public health," issued last week by a coalition of Texas environmental groups (including the Texas S.E.E.D. Coalition and Public Citizen's Texas office, among others), contains the letters and details how Bush's proposals to gut New Source Review -- expected to come any day now -- will likely result in tremendous increases in refinery pollution. That could have ugly consequences for Texas, where many of the nation's refineries are concentrated. The report is available at

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