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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Diesel Regulations

Air Date: Week of

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The Bush administration wants to cut pollution from off-road diesel engines found in farm and construction equipment. Environment and public health groups support the idea, but they’re wary of the administration’s motives. From Washington, Anna Solomon-Greenbaum briefs host Steve Curwood.


CURWOOD: The Bush administration is planning new rules to curb emissions from off-road diesel engines. Off-road means everything from small tractors and back-hoes to forklifts and bulldozers. A recent study by state and local air quality officials blames emissions from this equipment for more than 8,500 deaths and 67 billion dollars in health costs each year. The administration says cutting that pollution is one of its top priorities. But critics are questioning the motivation behind the new rules. Living on Earth’s Anna Solomon-Greenbaum joins me now from Washington.

Anna, one thing struck me right away when I saw this announcement. It was issued not only by the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, the agency you would expect to be involved, but by the OMB, the Office of Management and Budget, as well. I don’t ever remember seeing this type of collaboration before.

SOLOMON-BREENBAUM: You’re right. It’s very unusual. And they actually said that themselves in their press release. The OMB, of course, is an office of the White House, and one of its key roles is to review regulations that are written by the various agencies. In the Bush administration we’ve seen a sort of policy shift, where the OMB is not simply reviewing, but helping to create those regulations. And this non-road diesel rule is probably the most extreme example of that so far. This sort of official collaboration is really unprecedented. The administration says it’s doing it this way to expedite the rule making process. They say they want to get OMB involved from the start so it can resolve any differences it has with the EPA early on in the process.

But critics say bringing in the OMB is simply a way to reign in the EPA and shift the balance of power to the White House. They say OMB not only lacks the technical and scientific expertise to write rules on air quality, but that it lacks the authority to do so. Congressman Henry Waxman, a Democrat from California, wrote a letter to EPA administrator Christie Whitman in which he reminded her that the Clean Air Act was her jurisdiction, not that of the OMB. And he raised the possibility that their collaboration isn’t actually legal. One thing state and local air quality officials are saying they’re concerned about, too, is that they won’t be able to tell what in the rule is being driven by the EPA and what’s being driven by the White House. That it will be very hard to distinguish between the science here and the politics.

CURWOOD: Anna, tell us about the rule itself. What would it do?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, the basic approach they’ve laid out is first of all they’d install better emissions control devices on the non-road engines. Second, they’d take a look at reducing the sulfur levels in the fuel these engines use. The fuel they currently use has about six times more sulfur than the diesel fuel that’s used in trucks and buses.

CURWOOD: Environmental groups have been pushing for a long time to regulate these off-road engines, and yet it doesn’t seem like they’re very happy with what the administration is talking about doing.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, they’re very skeptical, Steve, and I think the biggest reason for that is one sentence that’s buried late in the administration’s press release. It says that one strategy they’re going to consider for cutting non-road emissions is to create a type of market-based trading system with the on-road diesel engines in trucks and buses. So the idea is those who pollute less can sell their credits to those who pollute more. This type of trading scheme, as we’ve seen, is something the Bush administration’s quite fond of. Last week, they came out with a proposal for trading water pollution credits. There’s also, of course, their Clear Skies Initiative, which is a voluntary trading scheme for power plant emissions.

And industry groups usually stand behind these trading ideas. In this case of non-road diesel, the administration says it would provide incentives for engine manufacturers to make their engines cleaner faster because they could gain credits from doing that. But for a lot of environment and public health groups, this trading idea raises a big red flag. There’s already, you might remember, a stringent new diesel rule in place for trucks and buses, and it’s supposed to go into effect this October. So, the fear is what happens to that rule now if they introduce a new trading scheme with the non-road vehicles? So, if trucks and buses are allowed to go below the new standards as long as they purchase pollution credits from an off-road vehicle, then those standards are, in effect, being weakened. So, these groups say yes, the non-road vehicles should definitely be regulated, but not in such a way that it takes away from the on-road regulations.

CURWOOD: So what happens next now?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, OMB and EPA are just starting now to sit down and start talking about the details of this rule, and there’s probably going to continue to be a lot of opposition to the two offices working together. But whether that will lead to any legal action, I think it’s too soon to tell now. The big question is whether we’re going to see those October rules for trucks and buses delayed because of this. Just last month it looked like they were finally sealed and done with; there was a court ruling. But this might open that up again. And if that happens, I’d say it’s guaranteed to end up back in court.

CURWOOD: Anna Solomon-Greenbaum is Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent. Thanks, Anna.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: You’re welcome, Steve.



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