Barton is called the fox in the clean-air hen house

Texas Republican gains control of law he fought

January 30, 2001|By KNIGHT-RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - Texas Rep. Joe L. Barton's new role overseeing a key panel on air pollution is setting the stage for a nationwide fight over smog.

The federal Clean Air Act, which cleared the skylines of dozens of U.S. cities and improved air quality nationwide, is threatened by a shift in Washington bureaucracy that has put Barton, a Republican, in charge of the very law he tried to gut four years ago, public health advocates say.

For decades, air quality has been the province of the House Commerce Committee's health and environment subcommittee. Not so in the 107th Congress, where Barton is the chairman of the new energy and air quality subcommittee.

Barton said he asked for air quality to be added to his energy subcommittee, which looks at domestic production of oil, coal, natural gas, nuclear power and alternative energy.

"The Clean Air Act reauthorization is up in this Congress," Barton said. "In the modern era you can't do energy policy unless you do a fair amount of environmental policy. The Clinton administration didn't have an energy policy. ... We're going to have a lot to do."

The Clean Air Act is partially to blame for California's energy crisis, some in Congress say, because tough federal air quality rules inhibited the building of power plants there.

But clean air advocates say California's energy problems are becoming a Republican poster child for oil drilling in the Arctic, promoting nuclear power and, in the case of the Clean Air Act, a pretext for weakening the law and rolling back public health protection.

"That this is being viewed as an energy issue and not a public health issue sends the wrong signal," said Paul Billings, a spokesman for the American Lung Association in Washington. The law has been incredibly cost-effective and the health benefits have been huge, he said.

"The Clean Air Act is in real jeopardy," said Frank O'Donnell, director of the Washington-based nonprofit Clean Air Trust.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimated in 1997 that air pollution causes 45,000 premature deaths annually, he said. Weaken the law and more children face chronic bronchitis and asthma attacks, and more workdays will be lost, he said.

"Barton is the Darth Vader of clean air," said O'Donnell, referring to Barton's efforts to revise the law by trying to redefine its health-based standards as goals.

Barton said more flexibility is needed in the law.

"I don't think we're going to walk away from health standards," he said. "I want to do the science. Good monitoring will allow you to set good standards. Some of the standards may be too tight."

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