The chairmen of three Senate committees have called for a public debate to be conducted by the administration before it decides how to enforce the Clean Air Act at older power plants. Since 1998 the Environmental Protection Agency has interpreted the law as requiring old coal burning plants to have pollution reduction controls fitted to meet current air quality standards when they are upgraded or modernised.

Following complaints from plant owners that these measures were too costly, and a recommendation by the DoE that pollution regulations should be revised downwards, president Bush directed the EPA and principal cabinet members to consider rescinding the requirement.

This has led to a fierce backlash from the EPA which said the proposals would “vitiate” the nation’s clean air policy. Leading senators including Joe Lieberman (Governmental Affairs Committee) and Jim Jeffords (Environmental and Public Works Committee) wrote to the president that “any modernisation of the programme that reduces its effectiveness is unacceptable”. They are also concerned about what they call the closed process, a significant departure from the established process of consulting state governments, local agencies and the public. And the EPA’s enforcement chief, Eric Schaeffer, has accused the White House of being determined to weaken the rules the EPA is trying to enforce, just when it was poised to make a real impact in the battle against illegal polluters.