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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Jim Connaughton
Jim Connaughton
Chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality
February 16, 2005

Jim Connaughton

I'm glad to be back once again on Ask the White House to answer your questions about the pending Clear Skies legislation and the President's national clean air strategy. The President renewed his call for this legislation in his recent State of the Union Address, stating that four years of discussion and debate is enough. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, under the leadership of Chairman James Inhofe is poised to complete committee level negotiations on their version of the Clear Skies legislation before bringing it to a vote in two weeks time. We look forward to successful completion of that important milestone in the process to successful passage.

Mike, from Wayne, PA writes:
All during the election campaign people said that the air and water are dirtier because of President Bush's polices. Is the air and water cleaner or dirtier than when he was first sworn in? Thanks for your time and service to our nation.

Jim Connaughton
A good place to start is to understand where we are coming from and going in terms of actual results and performance. Our air, water, and lands are cleaner and will continue to improve. For example, since 1970, air pollution has been cut more than 50 percent even as our economy more than doubled and our population and energy use have increased more than 40 percent. President Bush continued this trend over the last four years and we can be assured of even greater progress going forward. Just last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took the critical next step of implementing new, much more stringent air quality standards to address smog and fine particles. The states are now obligated to design and implement the plans necessary to meet these standards on a strict schedule. Today's discussion is about one of the most important tools the federal government can provide to the states to help them meet the standards.

Bob, from Georgia writes:
I live in a big city and the air is not the best. How will you be able to help the air quality in cities around America?

Jim Connaughton
Bob, the great State of George enjoys one of the nation's most vibrant and growing economies, and community and cultural life.

The new air quality standards I mentioned in the prior answer set the new air quality performance mark that our big cities are going to have to meet. Our shared challenge is to develop and implement the strategies that will enable world-class cities like Atlanta to meet the standards in a manner that fosters continued economic growth and investment in technologies, rather than approaches where standards are met by driving businesses and good manufacturing jobs away from our urban centers and tearing apart communities. We also need to do so in a manner that does not put a substantial burden on those least able to afford increases in their energy costs.

The Clear Skies legislation, once passed, will cost-effectively cut pollution from old power plants and cap the pollution from new ones at a level that is 70 percent below today's levels in two phases. Along with our recent regulations cutting pollution from diesel fuel and engines by more than 90 percent, these programs will give Georgia powerful and certain tools for cutting pollution without getting tied up for years in the courts. Your state and federal representatives clearly understand this and are strong supporters of passage of this legislation.

Mayor, from Augusta, GA writes:
Please explain how Clear Skies will impact the affordability of energy for low and moderate income people. (Best wishes for a successful vote in the subcommittee today)

Jim Connaughton
Thanks for the question Mr. Mayor. You have provided the clearest evidence of my prior point about state support!

The pollution cuts that the President proposed in Clear Skies will enable private and public utilities to comply with the new law by installing new pollution control technology on coal-fired power plants. Coal is our most affordable, reliable, and domestically secure source of energy for power generation. By keeping our energy supply in clean coal, we can prevent the increased pressure on natural gas supplies that has done so much in recent times to drive up the cost of home heating, cooling, refrigerating, and cooking bills. These price increases are a real problem especially for people with low or moderate incomes. It also threatens the future of jobs in the manufacturing and fertilizer sectors that are dependent on natural as a direct energy source and as an important feedstock in the products they make. Alternative approaches under current law or proposed in Congress would make this problem much worse.

That is why passage of Clear Skies is so important.

Vaasu, from California writes:
I have heard that the Clear Skies initiative is actually a step backwards from current standards. The deteriorating air quality at many national parks seems to support that statement. What exactly is being done to improve the air quality?

Jim Connaughton
Clear Skies does not affect the new, health-based air quality standards we are now implementing -- which are much more stringent than the standards they will replace. Clear Skies is an extremely valuable tool for assuring that counties will meet the standards. The substantial pollution cuts in Clear Skies not only will improve the quality of the air we breathe and make for a healthier America, they will also substantially continue the progress we are making in improving visibility in our national parks -- a point reinforced for example in 2003 by the air quality manager in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park which faces some of the most significant challenges. EPA has an extensive discussion of this on their website. I invite you to check it out.

Bill, from Madison writes:
Mr. Connaughton, if they say the Bush Administration "doesn't care about the environment", then why is the Clear Skies Legislation so important? Why does it matter?

Does the President have a personal interest in this being that he is a rancher himself?

Jim Connaughton
The President is keenly interested in this policy as it advances his strong ethic of personal stewardship and his desire to put in place practical, common sense solutions to very complex problems like air pollution.

When he was Governor of Texas in the 1990s, the President struggled like so many other Governors to take the steps necessary to meet the air quality standards of that time. While supportive of the standards, he experienced first-hand the conflict, confusion, and uncertainty that leads to litigation and delay, resulting from the standards approaches to negotiating reductions. That is why he became one of the first Governors to adopt an innovative, new state law cutting power plant pollution in his state using the same mandatory "cap-and-trade" approach that Clear Skies is based on, which in turn was based on the very successful Acid Rain Trading Program enacted federally in 1990. It substantially reduced the conflict while delivering real results.

He is now pushing for Clear Skies legislation at the federal level because he cares about those same results and the certainty that this innovative tool will provide states in meeting the new air quality standards. It also has the added advantage of being an approach that is much easier to enforce that older methods.

Jim Connaughton
Thanks for the questions today. I regret I was only able to answer a handful. I actually am going now to have further discussions about the legislation with some members of Congress. As we have only been able to scratch the surface of the valuable features of this legislation, I urge all of you to take a look at some of our prior Ask the White House sessions on this subject and scroll your way through the policy materials on the White House and EPA websites. They will make a policy wonk out of you!