WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - After more than two years of internal deliberation and intense pressure from industry, the Bush administration has settled on a regulation that would allow thousands of older power plants, oil refineries and industrial units to make extensive upgrades without having to install new anti-pollution devices, according to those involved in the deliberations.
The new rule, a draft of which was made available to The New York Times by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, would constitute a sweeping and cost-saving victory for industries, exempting thousands of industrial plants and refineries from a portion of the Clean Air Act. The acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency could sign the new rule as soon as next week, administration officials have told utility representatives.
The exemption would allow industrial plants to continue to emit hundreds of thousands of tons of pollutants into the atmosphere and could save the companies millions if not billions of dollars in pollution equipment costs, even if they increase the amounts of pollutants they emit.
And the action could spare Gov. Michael O. Leavitt of Utah, if he is confirmed as President Bush's new EPA administrator, from having to make a decision on a highly contentious issue.
The current rule requires plant owners to install pollution-control devices if they undertake anything more than "routine maintenance" on their plants. Industries have long complained that this standard was too vague and that it hindered investment in more efficient equipment.
The new rule says that as much as 20 percent of the cost of replacing a plant's essential production equipment - a boiler, generator or turbine - could be spent and the owner would still be exempt from installing any pollution controls, according to people involved in the deliberations.
Officials said that Marianne Horinko, the acting administrator of the EPA, would probably sign the rule before Labor Day. It would go into effect shortly thereafter, without review or comment from the public.
The only way to stop it would be through court action, which critics of the new rule are threatening.
Eliot Spitzer, the attorney general of New York, said he would file a challenge to the new rule as soon as it was signed.
"A rule that creates a 20 percent threshold eviscerates the statute," he said of the Clean Air Act. "This makes it patently clear that the Bush administration has meant all along to repeal the Clean Air Act by administrative fiat."