In a stunning reversal, U.S. Sen. Max Cleland is now supporting the Clean Air Act program he criticized six months ago.
Cleland is the first senator known to come back and support what is called the New Source Review program, one of the only enforcement tools the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency uses to force power companies to upgrade pollution controls on old coal-burning power plants.
The NSR program came under attack last May when the White House's controversial energy policy called for a review of NSR. Power companies, including Southern Co., launched an all-out lobbying and campaign-donation offensive to get senators and congressmen to write letters to the EPA criticizing the NSR program.
A month ago, Eric Schaeffer -- an EPA enforcer who resigned in protest of the Bush administration's clean air policies -- revealed in Creative Loafing that Cleland and Sen. Zell Miller were among those politicians who attacked the NSR program.
Environmental groups who'd heralded Cleland's previously spotless environmental record were floored.
Cleland sent EPA Administrator Christine Whitman a drastically different letter on NSR two weeks after CL's story.
"I encourage you to fully support the Clean Air Act and reject any changes to the New Source Review (NSR) program which compromise the Act's mandate for improved air quality," Cleland wrote.
After voting against higher fuel efficiency standards, twice, and sending the first letter condemning the NSR program, Cleland was on the verge of ostracizing the environmental community -- and vice versa.
But the second letter brought Cleland back into the greenies' good graces and made history at the same time.
Environmentalists, through listservs and newsletters such as Air Daily, are praising the letter as a turning point in support for the NSR program.
"I think that this letter will send a signal both to the [Bush] administration and other members of the Senate that when a very intelligent and thoughtful and sensible U.S. senator looks closely at the issue, he concluded that the NSR rules were not only worth it, they were vital," says Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope.
However, Cleland wouldn't call the letter a reversal, or even a clarification. In an e-mail, he says, "It was an amplification on my previous letter on New Source Review ... I wrote to both weigh in on the current debate within the administration on clean air enforcement and clarify any misunderstandings about the nature of my concerns on the NSR program itself."
But the fact remains that his first letter criticized the NSR program, saying to Whitman, "I encourage you to re-evaluate the rules and their interpretation by the EPA."
Regardless, the latest letter served another important purpose: It put Cleland back in good standing with environmentalists, who are some of the senator's most loyal supporters.
Cleland is facing a tough re-election. He's been singled out by Republicans nationwide as a beatable Democrat at a time when Democrats hold a one-seat majority in the U.S. Senate.
Cleland will face either U.S. Rep. Saxby Chambliss or state Rep. Bob Irvin in November.
The Republican that wins the party primary will have access to national campaign funds that have been targeted to the race because of Cleland's perceived vulnerability.
In other words, the endorsement of the environmental community is crucial for Cleland to succeed in November -- by sending Whitman the second letter, he regained that endorsement.
"We were disappointed [in his first letter and the gas mileage standard votes] but he's done a lot of other very good things and this letter was yet another good thing he's done," the Sierra Club's Pope says. "Given that and his overall record, I'd imagine we'd support him."
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