The Navajo Nation plans to earn $50 million annually by building a coal-fired power plant on its New Mexico reservation. But its plans hit a snag earlier this week, when the Environmental Protection Agency, citing air pollution concerns, moved to revoke a Bush administration permit and block the project.
Similar “green” reversals have grown commonplace at EPA, where Administrator Lisa Jackson has systematically upended the agency’s pro-industry tendencies of the past eight years. She has replaced them with decisions that strongly favor environmentalists, a trend that is likely to accelerate as she undertakes a top-to-bottom agency review.
“There’s been an unequivocal change in the EPA between the two administrations,” said Brad Johnson, an energy researcher at the left-leaning Center for American Progress.
Bryan Mignone, a climate and energy specialist at the Brookings Institution, agrees. “The EPA is taking a much more aggressive stance toward regulating on the environmental front,” he said.
The abrupt change started immediately after President Obama took office. In February, Mrs. Jackson canceled a Bush-era decision that denied requests by California and other states to impose strict emissions limits on automobiles.
Two weeks ago, Mrs. Jackson classified carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as harmful pollutants, ending what environmental groups considered foot-dragging by the Bush administration. The so-called endangerment finding allows the agency to impose limits on greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks and, potentially, electricity plants and industrial polluters.
And there’s more. At the behest of Earthjustice, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Sierra Club, the agency reversed rules that had allowed “fine particle” smog and soot to be pumped into the atmosphere by industries, mines and farmers.
It also has proposed greenhouse gas reporting mandates on large industrial plants and fuel suppliers, tougher emissions limits on coastal shippers and new limits on cement factory air pollution.
The agency defended its actions.
“EPA still has work to do when it comes to ensuring Americans are breathing clean air where they live, work, play and learn,” a spokesman said by e-mail. “Going forward, Americans should expect [Mrs. Jackson] to continue to be vigilant in addressing air quality issues, with science and the law as her guideposts.”
The agency’s latest actions on the Navajo project repudiated rulings reached by EPA in July, and the agency acknowledged that more reversals are likely soon. In a filing with EPA’s appeals board, an agency official wrote that Mrs. Jackson is reconsidering “many of the agency’s policies under the Clean Air Act and other statutes.”
The move was a major victory for environmental groups, including the NRDC, and was a setback for the Navajos.
Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. said EPA went back on its promises and appeared to be changing the permitting rules for the 1,500-megawatt plant without using proper procedures.
“EPA sends the unmistakable message that it will hold facilities on Navajo land to standards that may well be impossible to meet - and one that wouldn’t be applicable elsewhere,” he said in a statement.
John Walke, the clean air director at NRDC, sees the Navajo reconsideration as part of a larger effort by EPA to undo Bush administration policies quickly while preparing for the slower process of putting Mr. Obama’s priorities into the books.
The Navajo reconsideration “has been in keeping with a steady drumbeat of announcements since Jan. 20 in which most of the clean air rules by the Bush administration that I have been fighting have been lined up and announced for reconsideration,” Mr. Walke said.
He stressed that Mrs. Jackson’s moves are closely coordinated with the White House as part of Mr. Obama’s anti-global warming agenda. The decision this week to review three rules affecting fine particle industrial pollution under the “new source review” authority of the Clean Air Act was part of the same approach.
“For government officials to talk about green jobs, clean energy and global warming action in the same breath is a novelty and overdue recognition in our view,” he said.
Conservative-leaning and pro-business groups are keeping a close eye on the reinvigorated EPA and are noticing that the agency is inclined to find common ground with environmental groups.
“There’s a lot of things they’ve wanted to do that have been accumulating over the years and now there is a chance to implement them,” said Ben Lieberman, a senior policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Mr. Lieberman said Mrs. Jackson has proceeded with a dose of cautionbecause of the recession. On the greenhouse gas finding, he said only worries about hurting the already ailing economy kept Mrs. Jackson from proposing new auto and truck emissions regulations more rapidly.
William Kovacs, vice president for the environment, technology and regulatory affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said it would be only harder, if not impossible, to put new coal-fired power plants into service because of EPA decisions this year.
Between 60 and 70 plants have been stalled because of permitting issues, he said, and challenges to clean energy projects over environmental issues are likely as well.
“It’s like the proverbial floodgates at the dam,” he said. “They’re just opened.”