WASHINGTON -- No one really doubts that the new Clean Air Act, now being bolted together by House and Senate conferees on Capitol Hill, will cost everyone more money and intrude deeper into people's daily lives than any previous anti-pollution law.
"Everybody in the United States of America is going to get a wake-up call after this [bill] passes," said a congressional staff member. "You can count on it."
Considerable as the industrial costs are likely to be, however, environmental and health groups contend that the benefits -- better health and productivity, as well as likely savings in energy and fuel -- will more than compensate.
To meet the new standards, many manufacturers and maintenance shops will have to install state-mandated pollution-control equipment. In some cases, industry spokesmen say, it will mean having to replace expensive equipment, straining or even breaking the resources of smaller enterprises -- adding up to greater costs and higher prices at the cash register.
Paul R. Portney, vice president of the environmental think tank Resources for the Future, estimates that the new legislation would increase annual anti-pollution expenditures from the current $90 billion to more than $120 billion when fully implemented in 10 to 15 years. This, he said, would cost each household $300 to $400 a year.
William D. Fay, administrator of the industry-based Clean Air Working Group, warns that the most stringent measures contained in the House and Senate bills, if passed, would erode the economic base of many small and large businesses, leading to closings, bankruptcies and the possible loss of 350,000 to 750,000 jobs.
Environmentalists say such worst-case predictions fail to take account of provisions in the proposed act that would give the Environmental Protection Agency latitude in enforcing the law.
Most of the measures likely to be in the new clean-air bill are designed to take effect over the next 10 to 20 years, to give companies time to develop anti-pollution technology or find alternative materials and production methods.
Congressional aides say that oil lobbyists have been arguing against probable requirements in the Clean Air Act for reformulated gasoline, saying the higher refining standards would bring less gasoline from each barrel of oil, raising prices well above current gulf crisis levels.
"They're talking about $2 a gallon," said a House aide.
The new Clean Air Act could in fact reduce gasoline consumption, said William K. Reilly, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Mr. Reilly said the clean fuel provisions replacing ordinary gasoline with blends would reduce gasoline demand by 500,000 barrels a day. He said limits on sulfur-oxide emissions from electric utilities would prod plants in the Northeast and Southeast to replace at least another 300,000 barrels of high-sulfur oil with natural gas.
Some environmentalists have pointed out that the new clean-air law probably would reduce the harsher impact of anti-pollution measures that would almost certainly have to be applied in the most seriously polluted cities. The new act would effectively extend deadlines for compliance, giving many seriously polluted areas time to tackle their pollution problems.
Los Angeles, for example, is facing the world's most extreme anti-smog controls -- such as the outlawing of barbecues -- simply because it has been unable to meet existing smog-control standards. Environmental groups sued the city and won a court order that forced the EPA to draw up a federal implementation plan.
If a new Clean Air Act is not implemented this year, the EPA's 800-page plan would automatically take effect, enforcing a range of restrictions far more stringent than those in the impending law.
The conference has been struggling since July to produce a bill, and next month's end-of-session deadline is approaching fast. All sides say they are confident that, after years of bickering, there will be a new Clean Air Act this year. The statute, expected to exceed 700 pages, would be the first federal law against air pollution passed since the existing act was amended in 1977.
Los Angeles might be the dirtiest city, environmental groups say, but 95 other U.S. cities could be liable for restrictions because they cannot meet existing smog-control standards. It would only take a lawsuit.
A new Clean Air Act
Details are still being worked out, but the revised law is likely to tighten pollution controls on:
Motor vehicles: Automakers would cut tailpipe emissions for cars, light trucks, buses and possibly heavy trucks in varying degrees, depending on regional smog levels, over the next five to eight years. Car owners and public transport companies would meet tougher exhaust inspection standards in most states, including Maryland.