By Debbie Sease
Sierra Club Legislative Director
Arsenic in the water, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, cyanide in the streams - Bush unveils his environmental vision
The Bush administration in March unleashed a maelstrom of havoc on air, land and water when officials announced they would revoke, revise and reconsider a slew of environmental protections.
Proving that compassionate conservatism doesn't extend to the natural world, Bush reversed his own campaign promise to begin cutting global warming by limiting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. He pulled back a rule that would have reduced arsenic levels in drinking water. He announced that the United States would withdraw from the Kyoto Treaty to reduce global-warming emissions. He decided to stop new protections for mining on public lands, and he made repeated attempts to derail the wild forest protection plan - which may explain the resignation of U.S. Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck.
Before this, Bush had already promoted drilling for oil and gas in the pristine Arctic Wildlife Refuge, and appointed anti-environmentalists like Gale Norton as Interior Department secretary, Abraham Spencer as energy secretary and John Ashcroft as attorney general.
These decisions show a definite and troubling pattern of Bush consistently putting the objectives of corporate campaign contributors in the mining, timber, oil, and gas and coal industries ahead of the welfare of the American people.
On a more positive note, these decisions are beginning to create a backlash in the press and may stimulate pressure on Bush from pro-environment members of his own party.
The issues at hand are of deep concern to the American public. It's hard to convince parents that while the European Union and World Health Organization recognize the safe level of arsenic - a carcinogen - in drinking water at 10 parts per billion, it's perfectly safe for their children to drink water with arsenic levels at 50 ppb, the president's standard.
But the administration and allies in Congress learned lessons well from the past several years. Their attacks on the environment are couched in well-tested rhetoric that speaks of "balance," "sound science" and "moderation." In other words, they simply need more scientific testing before reducing arsenic limits in drinking water.
What's at risk as we head into the fifth month of a four-year term?
The risks are two-fold: losing environmental protections that have been decades in the making, and failing to make critically needed progress on major challenges such as global warming.
During the Clinton administration, we made great gains in the protection of special places with the designation of more than 20 national monuments, an administrative ban on new roads and logging in 58 million acres of wild national forest and an increase in funding for land acquisition and wildlife habitat protection.
Now all public lands are in danger of increased resource extraction with reduced environmental oversight. We can expect more pressure to cut more trees, graze more livestock, open more areas to oil and gas drilling and commercialize our national parks.
Protections for clean air and water are already being attacked. We made great progress to reverse the trend in recent years, establishing new, tougher, health-based standards for air and water pollutants, including soot, smog, diesel fumes and arsenic. We even made headway controlling water pollution from huge animal factory operations.
The coal industry has already convinced Bush to renege on his campaign promise to require industry to limit the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by power plants. Of course, the coal industry spent more than $6 million in campaign contributions, with 88 cents of every dollar going to Republican candidates.
The fossil-fuel industries will exert heavy influence on the Bush administration as it crafts a national energy policy. We need an energy policy that sets us on a path to a safe, reliable energy future that protects our environment, increases efficiency and conservation, and invests more in renewable energy sources. But Bush seems wedded to one that rewards his special-interest campaign contributors by continuing to subsidize and increase our dependence on polluting fossil fuels and dangerous nuclear energy.
What can we do?
We are not helpless, and it's likely we can head off the worst of these attacks. Our greatest strength is that the American people care deeply about environmental protection. The public does not believe - nor do we - that we have to choose between the economy and the environment.
When we carefully document and credibly reveal the anti-environmental actions that are being pursued, we can alert and mobilize the public on behalf of these values.
We're making some headway already: The House Budget Committee decided to drop the controversial section that assumed revenue from opening the Arctic to oil and gas drilling. Even Bush is showing some signs of nervousness about the success of his proposal, saying drilling could take place in Canada or Mexico instead.
But we are not out of the woods yet, and we are far from in our mothers' arms. We will need to redouble our efforts to educate the public about what is at risk, organize our activists and mobilize all of our allies to defend the progress we have made. We must ensure that our politicians make the right choices.
Photo: Associated Press
Up to Top