The EPA Talks Dirty on Emissions

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It's been a long time coming, but the 30-year-old Clean Air Act has struck a decisive blow against Big Oil. Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced sweeping new anti-pollution measures that would drastically reduce emissions from trucks and buses and eliminate a significant percentage of the carcinogens and asthma-inducing inhalants currently poisoning the national atmosphere. This is a big step for the once-timid EPA; Wednesday's declaration is an uncharacteristically forceful move, setting the agency on a collision course with the powerful (and increasingly irritable) oil industry. While regulators would continue to grant smaller refiners a now-entrenched degree of latitude in meeting the new standards, larger producers would be subject to fines as early as 2006.

The pivotal (and most contentious) provision of the proposal would cut the sulfur level in diesel fuels by 97 percent over the next 10 years. Not surprisingly, the oil industry is less than thrilled with the directive, claiming the new regulations could create a fuel crunch by curtailing production and rendering diesel fuel prohibitively expensive — an increase of at least 10 cents per gallon, by most estimates. "Oil companies generally resist regulation by predicting disastrous short-term effects," says TIME international editor Charles Alexander. "And there could well be short-term shortages to deal with, but the market will adjust; it always has before. The EPA is taking the long view on pollution, which is exactly what they should be doing." Unfortunately for its opponents, the EPA proposal may not encounter much resistance on its path to becoming law; the Clean Air Act permits President Clinton to sign environmental measures without congressional approval, as long as the public has been given adequate warning and a chance to speak out on the issue. Members of the oil industry know they face an uphill battle against the new emissions regulations; analysts aren't holding their breath for consumers to abandon public health concerns in favor of shoring up the already considerable fortunes of the world's oil syndicates.