WASHINGTON -- In a surprise reversal of its public position, the Bush administration supported a Senate action yesterday to greatly speed up the planned phaseout of chemicals that damage the Earth's protective ozone layer.
A proposal to cease production of the chemicals as fast as possible passed the Senate by 96-0, a vote that would have been unthinkable without the change of attitude at the White House.
Only three months ago, the measure was prevented from even coming to a floor vote by Republican senators acting on behalf of the White House.
The White House's change in position has come about through efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency. With John H. Sununu, the former White House chief of staff, no longer in a position to oppose its initiatives, the agency took advantage of new data released earlier this week, which portray a threat much more dire than expected.
William K. Reilly, the EPA administrator, said yesterday, "President Bush is very concerned about ozone depletion and takes seriously the recent scientific discovery that it is worse that we thought. I expect that the administration, which is currently reviewing the information, will support moving up the phaseout schedule for various ozone-depleting chemicals by three, four or in some cases five years."
The threatening chemicals, a family of substances known as chlorofluorocarbons, or CFC's, are widespread. They are used as industrial solvents and as the coolant in refrigerators and air conditioners,among other things. An international agreement, the Montreal Protocol, signed in 1987 calls for production of CFCs to be halted by the year 2000.
"It is obvious we have to move up the dates," said Eileen Claussen, director of the EPA's Office of Atmospheric and Indoor Air Programs. "The Senate resolution says to move them up as fast as we can. To the extent there is debate, and there isn't much, the debate is over just how early we can fix these dates."
The proposal passed by the Senate -- an amendment to the energy bill -- declares that ozone depletion is occurring at twice the rate previously believed, in both in the Southern and Northern hemispheres and over populated areas as well as both poles.
The Senate's work on the energy bill is expected to be finished within a week, and the House's work by the end of March. Support for the bill is also known to be strong in the House.
Some scientists have projected that it could take decades to reverse damage to the ozone layer caused by the chemicals.
Some congressional critics of President Bush's handling of environmental issues such as ozone depletion said the president should have already acted to hasten the elimination of CFCs.