In the waning days of George W. Bush’s first term, Living on Earth takes a look at his administration’s environmental record. The president has said that he hopes to be remembered for his respect towards the natural world, as well as for his material progress. His supporters credit him with many of the environmental achievements he put through as governor of Texas. His critics say this administration has been the worst for the environment in history.
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CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
As the presidential campaign enters its final phase, we’re taking a look at the record of President George W. Bush on the environment -- and we’ll start with his own words. Mr. Bush didn’t talk a lot about the environment during his recent speech at the Republican convention in New York, but it certainly merited his attention.
(Photo: White House)
BUSH: I like to tell people Laura and I are proud to own a Texas ranch. And for us, every day is Earth Day.
CURWOOD: When President Bush spoke in the Adirondacks on Earth Day in 2002 he was less than half way into his term, but he had already begun to rewrite some of the nation’s leading environmental laws. And here’s how he described his environmental goals:
BUSH: We want to be remembered for our material progress, no question about it. But we also want to be remembered for the respect we give to our natural world.
CURWOOD: Supporters say the president came into the White House after a number of environmental accomplishments as governor of Texas. During Mr. Bush’s years as chief executive of the Lone Star state, they say he boosted spending on natural resources and cut toxic and power plant pollution.
And if there’s one thing that President Bush would like the public to remember about his environmental record, it could easily be what he calls the Healthy Forest Initiative. In the face of devastating wildfires in the West, the Bush administration designed this forest management program to reduce the threat of those wildfires while “upholding environmental standards.”
STRASSEL: It comes from many, many years of mismanaging our forests.
CURWOOD: Kim Strassel is a senior editorial writer for The Wall Street Journal.
STRASSEL: The General Accounting Office estimated not long ago that one-third of our national forests are dead or dying. Healthy forests was bipartisan -- it passed both the Senate and the House with decent majorities. It got a lot of support, especially from Western Democrats, because they recognize the problem out there. And I think in the end it was a very reasoned proposal.
CURWOOD: Supporters also give Mr. Bush high marks for a proposed billion dollar hydrogen car research program designed to reduce pollution as well as our dependence on foreign oil. Another addition to this list of accomplishments, according to Los Angeles Times environmental reporter Elizabeth Shogren, is the Bush administration’s move to cut emissions from diesel engines.
SHOGREN: That’s a big area where the Bush administration, I think, can take a lot of pride in having a big impact on the air into the future and making it healthier for people everywhere in the country.
CURWOOD: The president generally prefers to use a free market approach to environmental protection, rather than strict regulation. Take, for example, his Clear Skies Initiative. This White House says this plan calls for reductions in three major air pollutants by 70 percent, and saves consumers millions of dollars at the same time.
BUSH: We will set mandatory limits on air pollution with firm deadlines, while giving companies the flexibility to find the best ways to meet the mandatory limits.
CURWOOD: One way to use this approach is to set a cap on overall pollution for an industry and allow businesses to buy and sell their allocations of pollution permits. Letting the market set the agenda also avoids government subsidies and seeks to lower market barriers. Kim Strassel of The Wall Street Journal says this approach has many advantages over standard environmental regulation:
STRASSEL: We have thirty years of environmental improvement that came from mandates – that, basically, came from laws that came and said you can’t do this, you can’t do this, you can’t do this…and they have worked to a degree. Now, are there ways to actually improve environmental performance and improve the economy at the same time; is there a new way of thinking about how we can manage the environment? This idea of free market environmentalism is one such approach.
CURWOOD: But others say Mr. Bush’s interpretation of the free market approach isn’t working. For example, they claim his Clear Skies Initiative will add another two decades of pollution to the skies before the market incentives start to clear the air.
Among the critics is Robert F. Kennedy Jr., author and attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Mr. Kennedy charges that while the Bush administration talks about using the free market, in fact, it does just the opposite.
KENNEDY: You show me a polluter, I’ll show you a subsidy, and I’ll show you a fat cat who is using political clout to escape the discipline of the free market and force the public to pay his production costs.
CURWOOD: Mr. Kennedy’s new book, “Crimes Against Nature,” is a polemic against the Bush White House which, he says, is dishonest about its environmental agenda. He and other critics say that President Bush is relaxing regulations but not cutting subsidies to industries or making them pay for cleanup. Critics also cite what they call hundreds of environmental rollbacks, claiming that Mr. Bush is using free market environmentalism to eviscerate decades of environmental reform.
KENNEDY: It’s the worst administration in American history without any rival on the environment, and the Reagan administration was really bad.
CURWOOD: Mr. Kennedy notes the Bush team came into office and quickly established an energy task force under the leadership of Vice President Dick Cheney, the former CEO of Halliburton, a major oil and gas service company. The membership and much of the proceedings of the task force have remained secret, but its recommendations have been put into action.
Early on, the White House pulled the U.S. out of the international treaty called the Kyoto Protocol, to cut gases that lead to climate change. The task force then recommended heavy use of coal, one of the most concentrated sources of gases that promote global warming. It also promoted more nuclear power and drilling for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. Other policies have drawn criticism as well.
SHOGREN: One example that has to do with what the Bush administration is doing to relax protections has to do with mountaintop removal mining.
CURWOOD: Again, Elizabeth Shogren of the Los Angeles Times.
SHOGREN: And this is the process where they take the tops of mountains off and take the coal out of it. And the Bush administration has made several moves to keep this process going, despite efforts through the courts to reduce this kind of mining and scale it back.
CURWOOD: Some of the president’s other controversial moves have to do with pollution from coal-fired power plants, which is linked to thousands of excess deaths each year from tiny particles of ash that people breathe. The White House called for weaker limits on another dangerous pollutant from those power plants: mercury.
The administration also relaxed regulations and settled court cases that would have required the oldest, dirtiest power plants to install new pollution control technology. The president plans to replace these regulations with a free market approach that would allow plants to trade pollution credits.
But critics say these new initiatives will end up substantially delaying and weakening pollution controls under the Clean Air Act. Critics also say these clean air issues point to a fundamental problem with the administration’s free market approach. And that is -- the free market doesn’t work when industry officials are writing the laws. Again, Robert Kennedy Jr.:
KENNEDY: There is no stronger advocate for free market than myself. I believe that the free market is the most efficient and democratic way to distribute the goods of the land, but there is a huge difference between free market capitalism, which democratizes our country, and the kind of corporate crony capitalism, which has been embraced by this administration.
CURWOOD: Mr. Kennedy and others say industry has too much sway with regulators, in part because former company officials are now pulling the levers of regulation and enforcement. They cite the case of Jeffrey Holmstead, a former lobbyist and lawyer who, in his old job, fought the EPA over air pollution enforcement. Mr. Holmstead is now a key decision-maker on air pollution enforcement, having been appointed EPA’s Assistant Administrator for Air Policy. Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy has been one of the most outspoken critics on, what he calls, these conflicts of interest.
LEAHY: You see how the Bush administration strategically placed industry lawyers in key positions in EPA who spent the last three years helping some of the biggest utility companies in the country getting off the legal hook of putting pollution controls in their plants. They put the fox in to guard the hen house.
CURWOOD: But The Wall Street Journal’s Kim Strassel says it doesn’t make sense to keep industry veterans like Jeffrey Holmstead out of the regulatory process.
STRASSEL: Environmentalists constantly like to talk about the stake-holder process, about how they want to be involved, and how the administration should be making decisions with them, and I agree with that. But I think if you’re going to have that approach, you have to have everyone involved – you have to have the people on who these regulations are going to be inflicted on too.
CURWOOD: Still, some observers say that the sheer number of former industry executives, lobbyists, and lawyers who hold key positions within regulatory agencies is without precedent in modern times. Other names frequently mentioned are J. Steven Griles, now Deputy Secretary of the Interior, and a longtime mining industry lobbyist and official, and Gale Norton, now Secretary of the Department of Interior, who formerly worked with property rights groups, the paper industry’s lobbying group, and represented a leading petroleum company. And there are others with resumes similar to Mr. Holmstead and Griles and Ms. Norton. Again, Elizabeth Shogren of the Los Angeles Times.
SHOGREN: A lot of them are lobbyists, a lot of them are lawyers who worked on behalf of industry, directly on behalf of industry, so these people were very aware when they came into office what kind of policies the industry wanted.
CURWOOD: And she thinks the extent of this practice is unique to this administration.
SHOGREN: The president’s father, the first President George Bush, had a very different sort of cadre of top appointees in the environmental agencies. The people who headed his agencies were like William Riley, who headed the EPA, and he was somebody who was well known as an environmentalist.
Critics also say the Bush administration ignored science in the debate about the Clean Air Act and setting standards for mercury. And this criticism has been particularly loud from the hallways of science itself about a whole range of issues, on everything from snowmobiles in national parks, up to the status of science in climate change. Kevin Knobloch is head of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and says many of his members have long government service.
KNOBLOCH: Even these seasoned scientists are very upset. They’ve never seen anything on this scale.
CONNAUGHTON: This administration has gone to and relied on the National Academy of Sciences more consistently and regularly than any prior administration on the top environment-natural resources issues of our day.
CURWOOD: That’s James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
CONNAUGHTON: On every top line issue we’ve gone to the National Academy of Sciences, and we’ve largely followed their guidance, with rare exception.
CURWOOD: But Russell Train disagrees. He’s a former director of the Environmental Protection Agency and chair of the Council on Environmental Quality under Republican presidents Nixon and Ford.
TRAIN: I think the White House is making a very big mistake to inject itself in that fashion into the regulatory process. Public health will suffer, and I think that’s a very bad road down which to go.
CURWOOD: On November 2nd, for what amounts to a referendum on the Bush administration, how will people respond based on the president’s environmental record? Robert Kennedy Jr. thinks it’s crucial that voters look at that record.
KENNEDY: This administration has -- with a concerted, deliberate and clever stealthy effort -- is in the process today of eviscerating 30 years of environmental law. And that’s not an exaggeration, that’s not hyperbole: it is a fact.
CURWOOD: But Bush supporters, including Wall Street Journal’s senior editorial writer Kim Strassel, say Mr. Bush has widespread support, and if he would articulate his environmental message better, even more people would respond.
STRASSEL: One of the reasons why Healthy Forests was a success story was because Bush actually stood up and said, this is a problem, this is why things need to change, and this is why we Republicans think that this is the right way to go. And I think the Bush administration’s problem is that it’s constantly playing defense on the environmental issue, and they don’t stand up and sort of say we want things to change, we want things to be different from the way it has been going, and here’s why, and we think it will be better if we do it this way.
CURWOOD: In the end, James Connaughton says the president’s record will stand on its own.
CONNAUGHTON: Is the air cleaner? Is the water purer? Is the land better protected? Are we doing a better job of managing the taxpayer resources that we spend to achieve environmental protection as we move forward into the next century?
CURWOOD: Our report today was produced by Susan Shepherd as part of our ongoing series on the environmental records of the presidential candidates. You can hear our profile of Democratic nominee Senator John Kerry on our web site at livingonearth.org.
Coming up: to build or not to build? The debate over new roads in some of America’s wildest places is next. Keep listening to Living on Earth.
[MUSIC: Adam Wiltzie “Six Million Dollar Sandwich” DEAD TEXAN (Kranky – 2004)]