Backing off a campaign pledge, President Bush told Congress today he will not regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.
The decision, outlined in a letter sent to a Republican senator, came after furious lobbying from the coal industry. It was a blow to conservationists who see curbing emissions of such "greenhouse gases" as key to reducing global warming.
The letter cited skyrocketing energy costs, particularly in the West, as one reason for Bush's about-face.
Bush said he supports a "comprehensive and balanced energy policy that takes into account the importance of improving air quality."
"I do not believe, however, that the government should impose on power plants mandatory emissions reductions for carbon dioxide, which is not a 'pollutant' under the Clean Air Act," Bush wrote to Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.
The decision drew sharp criticism from the Natural Resources Defense Council. "He's turned his back on the weight of all the alarming scientific consensus that global warming is real, and that carbon dioxide is the main cause," said David Doniger, a spokesman for the environmental group.
Greenhouse gases — primarily carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels like coal and oil — are widely believed to trap heat in the atmosphere, causing the phenomenon known as global warming.
Vice President Dick Cheney told senators of the administration's decision at a weekly policy gathering today, said an official on Capitol Hill.
Bush promised in the campaign to treat carbon dioxide emissions as pollutants, and Christie Whitman, his Environmental Protection Agency administrator, said last month that the administration was strongly considering such regulations.
Bush pledged last year to require electric utilities to "reduce emissions and significantly improve air quality." The legislation Bush proposed would have established "mandatory reduction targets for emissions of four main pollutants: sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury and carbon dioxide."
Explaining the shift, Bush aides said they did not realize there was a contradiction when the president's energy policy was released during the campaign — that the Clean Air Act does not identify carbon dioxide as a pollutant.
During the campaign, Bush said he would move to "phase in the reductions" of all four "pollutants … over a reasonable time period." Cheney said the campaign position was in error.
He told senators that Whitman was being "a good soldier" in repeating the campaign pledge.
Bush also cited an Energy Department study in December that said regulating carbon dioxide would lead to higher electricity prices, particularly in the hard-hit West. It would "lead to an even more dramatic shift from coal to natural gas for electric power generation and significantly higher electricity prices compared to scenarios in which only sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides were reduced," Bush wrote.
Bush's energy task force, chaired by Cheney, is trying to develop a national energy policy.
The Question of Global Warming
Carbon dioxide is emitted whenever fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas are burned. It also is found in everyday products such as cola and is emitted when people breathe.
Bush has argued that the nation's energy woes can largely be addressed by tapping domestic supplies of fossil fuels.
"Coal generates more than half of America's electricity supply," Bush wrote. "At a time when California has already experienced energy shortages, and other Western states are worried about price and availability of energy this summer, we must be very careful not to take actions that could harm consumers," he said.
The Bush administration has been lobbied aggressively by energy industry officials who vehemently oppose regulating carbon dioxide. They question its role in global warming.
Whitman said last month that Bush recognizes the importance of the challenges posed by climate change, a subject she said has been discussed as part of the administration's emerging energy plan.
"There's no question but that global warming is a real phenomenon, that it is occurring," Whitman said after a Senate hearing on other environmental issues.
Bush pledged in the letter to continue seeking ways to reduce global warming through market incentives and other techniques. At the same time, however, he questioned the science behind global warming.
"My administration takes the issue of global climate change very seriously," Bush wrote. But later in the letter, he cited the "incomplete state of scientific knowledge of the causes of, and solutions to, global climate change."