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With his ambitious package of proposals to clean up the air - including a long-delayed assault on acid rain - President Bush made clear this week that he was serious about his campaign rhetoric on the environment.

His proposals target three areas: auto-caused pollution in cities, acid rain, and industrial pollutants.All are worthy causes, but despite the presidential backing, and even though tougher bills are being introduced in Congress, reducing such pollution is going to be difficult. Politically powerful opposition is expected from several sources.

First, the president's plan is sure to be vigorously opposed by the powerful coal, chemical, oil and automotive lobbies. Second, the cleanup will be expensive, estimated at $14 billion to $19 billion a year. Third, it may require some changes in lifestyles, always a hard thing to impose.

All of those forces will make it an uphill battle in Congress to adopt the president's package or something like it. Even with Bush's backing, observers say it may be impossible to pass strong environmental legislation in Congress this year.

The Bush plan calls for tougher auto tailpipe emissions standards and phasing in of cars that use alternate fuels such as methanol. The goal would be 500,000 such methanol-fueled autos in operation within six years and one million such cars produced each year after 1996.

The original Clean Air Act was passed nearly 20 years ago and contained what was considered radical changes in auto emissions. As a result, new cars emit 90 percent fewer hydrocarbons and 75 percent less carbon monoxide. Unfortunately, there are now twice as many autos as two decades ago, with more traffic jams. As a result, city smog is growing.

Getting the auto industry to build cleaner cars and new kinds of cars won't be easy. These are the same people who have fought a lengthy, foot-dragging battle against meeting mileage standards for new cars.

The Bush plan to cut in half the 20-million to 24-million tons a year of sulfur dioxide gas, mostly emitted from coal-burning power plants in the Midwest, also will be opposed by segments of the coal mining industry and their allies in Congress. That pollution is blamed for acid rain that is harming forests and lakes in the Northeast United States and Canada.

Requiring those power plants to cut pollution in half raises serious questions about who would pay the extremely heavy cost - the power users in those states or all taxpayers?

Low-sulfur coal from the West could be used in those plants as one way to help reduce pollution, but Eastern coal mining interests have successfully fought that idea.

Bush also wants industrial plants to be required to use the "best available technology" to reduce toxic pollutants by 75 to 90 percent within a relatively short time frame.

Without question, all of this is desirable. The speed with with such new clean air rules are implemented must be carefully balanced against the cost, the possible damage to the economy and the loss of jobs. But those cannot be used as excuses for not doing anything.

Any massive cleanup is going to hurt. Yet on balance, it would be better to tackle the job now instead of waiting. The longer the delay, the harder the cleanup will be and the more it will cost.