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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Clinton's Legacy

Air Date: Week of

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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. President Clinton is moving out of the White House. Historians are already looking at his legacy, and our eyes, of course, are focused on the environment. Joining us are George Frampton, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality; Myron Ebell, director of international environmental policy with the Competitive Enterprise Institute; and Mark Hertsgaard, Living on Earth's political observer. Gentlemen, let's go back eight years. It wasn't a smooth start. President Clinton proposed a broad energy tax to attack the problems of energy use and the budget deficit. But up on Capitol Hill, this got watered down to a four cent a gallon fuel tax, and then it went absolutely nowhere. What happened? Mark Hertsgaard, let's start with you.

HERTSGAARD: Sure, Steve. Well, part of it is that he didn't call it an energy tax. They ended up calling it a BTU tax. BTU stands for British Thermal Units. And that was a real big part of the problem. The average American had no idea what a BTU tax was, and so it was very difficult to build any kind of understanding, much less support for the policy. In addition, they did not pay attention to something that Al Gore had written in his own book, Earth in the Balance, that if you want to do environmental tax reform, you have got to balance it out fiscally. And they didn't do that. And as a result, they ran into a buzzsaw of opposition. And Mr. Clinton, the new kid in town, promptly blinked in that confrontation and backed off.

CURWOOD: Let me turn to you now, Myron Ebell. What do you think happened here when the BTU tax went down?

EBELL: Well, I think that environmental fantasy met reality. I think the basis of our economic prosperity is abundant and inexpensive energy. I think that the entire episode was misguided, and I'm extremely grateful that opposition in Congress arose and it got watered down to four cents a gallon on gas. I wish it had been watered down to nothing.

CURWOOD: George Frampton, you've been in the White House now for a while. What's the analysis there of what went wrong with the BTU tax?

FRAMPTON: Well, I think obviously it was a faltering step out of the box, but an indication that this administration from the beginning was willing to take on very difficult, major environmental challenges. And I think what the president and vice president learned from that is that in order to do that, you've really got to build support, bipartisan support, in the country. And I think some of the fruits of that lesson have in fact enabled the administration to make some major, major progress in the last four or five years.

CURWOOD: Let's look now at climate change. It's been a big issue for the administration, particularly Vice President Al Gore. What kind of progress has there been on this issue? Let me start with you, George Frampton.

FRAMPTON: Well, the vice president went to Kyoto three years ago, staked his reputation on trying to help arrive at a strong but economically viable plan for reducing greenhouse gas. The Congress has been a huge roadblock in the last three years to doing some of the things we wanted to do domestically. In the meantime, the administration has started more than 50 major initiatives to improve energy efficiency, develop clean energy. But I think there's a lot more to do.

CURWOOD: But at the end of the day I think some would say, Mr. Frampton, that the breakdown of the whole Kyoto process just a few weeks ago in the Netherlands was blamed on the United States for being intransigent.

FRAMPTON: Actually, we came to an agreement at the end of that meeting in the Hague, which the European Union eventually backed away from, to great criticism by the environmental community. And it was an agreement that you can say was a Clinton-Gore agreement, but it was also an agreement that was supported pretty strongly by a growing segment of the international business community.

CURWOOD: Myron Ebell?

EBELL: What happened this fall in the Hague, the U.S. position going in was essentially jettisoned, and the Clinton negotiating team, under President Clinton's direct orders, apparently, if you believe the news accounts, essentially sued for surrender. And the European Union refused to accept the terms of surrender because they have discovered how almost impossible it's going to be for them, because they have weak political will in their governments, and they have, will have to make massive economic sacrifices to comply with the limits in the global warming treaty. So they don't want a treaty now. What they want to do is to blame the United States.

CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard?

HERTSGAARD: I think when it's looked back upon, that this will be seen as one of the major failures of the Clinton-Gore administration in regard to the environment. In my reporting for my book Earth Odyssey, I remember talking to an official in the Czech government, in Prague, and he said, "You know, people out here around the rest of the world, we may like the United States, we may not like the United States, but one thing we all know, it is the future." And so when you look and see how little Clinton and Gore have done on global warming, it makes you very discouraged, because it gives the excuse for other nations to say, "We're not going to do anything."

CURWOOD: Let's turn now to some urban issues. In particular, I want to ask: What has the administration done to clean up the air and water and polluted urban areas? And start with you, Myron Ebell.

EBELL: Well, again, I'm somewhat critical of the administration's record on air and water pollution. I think that many of the resources of government have been misdirected. And so, we have had, for instance, policies to have reformulated gasoline that were extremely ill-conceived and are now causing environmental problems because of the use of MTBE. At the same time, they've had extremely minimal impact on air quality. We have the ozone and particulate matter rule under the Clean Air Act. That rule, even the EPA's own advisory council was very critical of, because many of the things are very costly but have almost no benefit. I'm for benefits, but I think the benefits have to be weighed against costs occasionally.

CURWOOD: George Frampton. What about the cities?

FRAMPTON: This administration tripled the number of clean-ups compared to the last 12 years in Superfund sites. We have 130,000 new jobs in the environmental area, and leveraged billions of dollars of private sector money to go into so-called brownfields cleanups in our center cities. Those are sites that need to be cleaned up but don't rise to the level of Superfund sites. In the air quality area, three major sets of rules. The Soot and Smog Rule, the so-called Tier II rule setting the next ten-year standards for cleaning up emissions from cars. And a third set of rules that deals with diesel and big truck engines and diesel fuel, I think, are going to make our air 95 to 99 percent cleaner ten years from now.

CURWOOD: I'd like to turn now to look at this recent surge of action by the White House to protect wilderness areas. There's what, four-and-a-half, almost five million new acres of land, that's been designated as national monuments. There's about 60 million acres in the national forests that have been designated as roadless areas. What will the impact of all this be? Myron Ebell, how do you feel about this as the Clinton legacy?

EBELL: This is not about preserving land. This is about restricting access and locking up land. One thing that particularly bothers me is the massive and intense campaign against private property by the whole administration, but particularly by the Department of the Interior and Secretary Babbitt. Private property is the basis of sound environmental protection because it is only when you own something that you have an incentive to take care of it, and that includes wildlife. If people are threatened with the loss of their farm or their ranch or their timber lot because of an endangered species, then they clearly are going to be hostile to the regulators. And the result will be damaging to the species, because they will change their management practices. They will destroy habitat. They will do anything to keep the regulators off their property. And many of the environmentalists, including some in the administration, have recognized this for a long time.

CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard?

HERTSGAARD: I think this is going to be remembered as probably his finest achievement in terms of conservation and natural resource policies. Of course, again, we're going to see very strong efforts in the new administration and the new Congress to overturn these. But it's not going to be very easy. For example, in the case of forests, 58 million acres there, the oil industry is joining the timber industry in trying to get that overturned because they want to get in there and drill for oil. But you can't just overturn this. The Clinton Administration was very careful about how they did it. They engaged in long public hearings and had 1.5 million responses from citizens around the country. So in order for the Bush administration to overturn this, they're going to have to go through that whole same process.

CURWOOD: George Frampton?

FRAMPTON: I think the Clinton-Gore land conservation record is much broader and deeper than just additional protection for federally-managed lands. The administration started out to take on some major resource challenges in places like the California Bay Delta and the Everglades, which really required building partnerships with state and local government and stakeholders. And those have been huge successes. We created new parks in the California desert, and pioneered, really, in making the Endangered Species Act work on private lands, in partnership with private landowners and local government.

CURWOOD: Gentlemen, I want to ask you to think about grading the Clinton administration here. Imagine, now, there you are, you're the teacher, the Clinton administration has been your pupil. The subject has been environmental protection. How about a letter grade and a very brief comment to go on the report card? Why don't I start with you, George Frampton? A self-evaluation.

FRAMPTON: Air quality and land conservation: A. Water quality: B or B+. Superfund and brownfields: at least a B+, A-. Climate, I would say internationally we've done everything we could with a hostile Congress, so I would give us a B or B+, although we may not be viewed that way in the world. On domestic actions, not so good.

CURWOOD: All right. Myron Ebell.

EBELL: I'd say a gentleman's D. I think that the whole idea behind the Clinton administration's environmental policy has been so flawed that real achievement became very difficult.

CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard.

HERTSGAARD: I think that I'd give them two different grades. Domestically, their initiatives, I'd give them a B+. And internationally, much harsher, a C-. And I'd probably make them stay after school and write some sentences. Because the real disappointment here is that Al Gore in particular, and also Bill Clinton, knew better. They knew better and they could have done better.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you all for taking this time with us today. Myron Ebell is director of international environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington. Mark Hertsgaard is Living on Earth's political observer. And George Frampton is the chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

EBELL: Thank you.

FRAMPTON: Thank you.

HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: Coming up: one man's crusade against gas-guzzling SUVs. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now this environmental health update with Diane Toomey.

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