Eye on the United States

Campaigning for Filth

Smoke from a power plant surrounds the Capitol Building in Washington
Emissions from a power plant surround the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Tim Sloan/AFP-Getty Images).

The “personal message” from Robert Redford came in a large black envelope, secretive, and with few words printed on its cover. “The Bush administration has begun a sweeping attack on our environmental laws and our natural heritage,” writes the usually reticent movie star in his letter, printed on recycled paper. He laments the “cynical new policies...[that] will enrich giant corporations” and the “radical departure from the values of conservation that most Americans hold dear.”

Granted, it is not unusual in the United States for prominent Americans to come out and make appeals for the environment or other good causes. But the tone of such appeals and the language used by activist organizations has seldom been as alarmed as it is these days. This is “the worst environmental situation in American history,” claims Carl Pope, head of the Sierra Club. “[Bush] is wiping our last remaining wild places off the map,” complains Mike Matz, executive director of the Campaign for America’s Wilderness. “Complete nonsense,” replies the White House.

James Connaughton, the president’s top environmental policy adviser, has nothing but praise: Once all the Bush administration’s plans are carried out, our water, air, and land will be cleaner.

Is all this just hot air for the run-up to next year’s presidential elections? It was on an afternoon in May 1999, near Austin, Texas, that George W. Bush’s environmental policy was born. “I will be the next president of the United States,” Bush is said to have told the 15 environment and policy experts gathered there for his private seminar. “When I leave the White House,” Bush is said to have pledged, “the air will be cleaner, the water will be cleaner, and the environment will be better. Tell me how I’m going to make that happen.”

But four and a half years later, these goals sound like a bad joke. Although the general public has scarcely noticed, the Bush administration has in fact tampered with one environmental law after another and implemented drastic reforms. The results, most experts agree, have been mostly to nature’s disadvantage. In Europe, the best-known aspect of Bush’s policy has been the issue of world climate. After candidate Bush, during a campaign speech, promised to reduce emissions of CO2, a greenhouse gas, he broke his promise immediately after his election.

Since then, Bush has rejected the entire phenomenon of global warming, suppressed research reports saying the opposite from his own environmental authorities, and let the Kyoto Protocol fail. And Bush’s alternative plan, a series of research projects and voluntary agreements with the industry, is, off the record, dismissed as nonsense even by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. With similar verve, Bush, shortly after being elected, stopped the EPA from extending enforcement of the Clean Air Act. Already for decades, several of the largest electric utilities had been avoiding the installation of new filters in defiance of strict emissions controls from the 1970s; in 1999, the EPA began a new initiative to enforce these rules. But Bush wants to weaken the standards again, and his Clear Skies Act would grant power plants another [10 to] 15 years to comply with regulations.

In May 2002, environmental organizations sounded the alarm when the Bush administration released plans to weaken the Clean Water Act. Some changes would, for example, make it easier for questionable coal mines to operate—those that engage in mountaintop removal. They would get permission simply to dump the debris into valleys, burying entire creeks. “We were looking for friends, and we found one in George W. Bush!” rejoiced James Harless, a member of the board of directors of Massey Energy, a firm that does mountain topping (and someone who had ardently supported the Bush-Cheney campaign).

In January 2003, the administration proposed exempting up to 60 percent of America’s rivers and lakes from federal water protection laws. The “list of sins” by the Bush administration compiled by environmental groups and think tanks has now grown considerably longer. The most recent addition was a proposal to open huge areas in the national parks to tourism, mining, lumbering, and drilling for oil and natural gas.

Did the 15 experts at that Bush environmental seminar in Austin explain things wrong? If we can believe the insider reports that have leaked out about that afternoon, there was no talk about environmental clear-cutting. Some of the advisers did suggest moving more environmental oversight from the federal to local agencies, that heavy-handed government regulations ought to be, where possible, replaced by market mechanisms and self-policing, and that bans should give way to fines for pollution and incentives for clean-ups. When, two weeks after Bush took office, the lights went out in California, the president blamed the strict environmental laws. Those regulations had hindered the building of needed power plants and oil drillings. However, later it turned out that it was speculation by Enron, and other close friends of the Bush Cabinet, that had led to the blackout.

Bush and Cheney, and the Republican Party, received more than US$44 million in campaign contributions from such industries as mining, oil and gas, timber, coal, chemicals, and various other major sectors that harm the environment. According to a report published in Newsweek in 2000, the Bush campaign even promised contributors that their donations would receive tracking codes, so they could later be correctly identified and compensated through political decisions.

But why is there no outcry from the American public? After all, opinion polls have shown in recent years that more and more Americans value the environment. And it is above all the so-called swing voters in the affluent suburbs who are interested in the environment.

Is the president a daredevil? Perhaps, but on the other hand, all the surveys on what average Americans consider the “crucial issues” rank the environment only at eight or nine out of 10. The economy, national security, and the war in Iraq are all considered more important. Employees at the EPA told BusinessWeek that their leaders are very interested in putting a “political spin” on things—on selling administration policies so that they appear to be just environmentally friendly enough not to disturb the swing voters.

Can this balancing act succeed? Many observers believe it can. After all, the clear-cutting of environmental regulations and warnings from environmentalists have, so far, found little resonance among the public. This is because the Bush administration has chosen to carry out most of its energy and environmental policymaking out of the public’s view.

When [in early November] the House of Representatives approved the Department of Interior’s budget, a couple of environmental-policy curiosities were included. For example, the time limits within which citizens or organizations could complain about harmful logging operations in national parks were shortened.

A number of environmental groups recently protested against the increasing number of judgeships going to Bush-friendly candidates. What appeared, at first glance, to be a marginal issue has become a decisive political tool. More and more often, environmental-policy conflicts are settled in the federal courts rather than in open battles in Congress.

Occasionally, the White House itself is believed to have instigated so-called sweetheart suits, the practice of encouraging states and private groups to file lawsuits against the federal government and then agreeing to negotiate settlements that bypass environmental laws without any interference from Congress or the little-interested public. This was how the state of Utah, in April [2003], won the right to drill for oil on huge acreages near Monument Valley.

This is especially true for a long list of hiring choices by the president, in which he named former industry officials and lobbyists to regulatory positions—and from the point of view of the environmentalists, he has put the foxes in charge of the henhouse. James Connaughton, Bush’s top adviser for environmental issues, used to be a lobbyist for power companies.

Mark Rey, the undersecretary at the Department of Agriculture in charge of the Forest Service, was once a vice president at the American Forest and Paper Association. Since then, he has made logging and road building in the national forests considerably easier (and christened the program the Healthy Forests Initiative).

Jeffrey Holmstead, responsible for reforming U.S. air pollution laws, was an attorney and lobbyist for chemical companies. And it has leaked out that Steven Griles, deputy secretary at the Department of the Interior, received $284,000 a year from his former employer, a company lobbying for mining interests, even while in office.

The list goes on. The most recent addition: On Nov. 6, the EPA got a new boss, Michael Leavitt. But Leavitt started work only several weeks after his appointment. A group of Democratic senators, among them Hillary Clinton, had blocked his appointment for 56 days in protest of the “dubious environmental record” of the former governor of Utah. Leavitt was not a lobbyist, but almost no one believes he is the man up to the new challenge: to inject self-confidence into an agency described by insiders as “completely demoralized.”

Since the beginning of the Bush administration, the EPA enforcement division, the agency’s teeth, has the lowest number of employees in its history—and subsequently, fines and other more severe punishments against polluters have dwindled. Even the computer system that the EPA used to monitor pollution by factories and sewage systems does not work—the money for maintaining it ran out in May [2003].

Leavitt’s predecessor resigned in May, citing “personal reasons.” But in
reality—and this, too, was an open secret in Washington—she was sick of her role as poster child for the environment in the Bush administration.