Sierra Club logo

Sierra Magazine

Printer-friendly format

What Are They Thinking in Washington?

A majority of Americans say they care about the environment. You’d never guess it from what goes on in the nation’s capital.

By Arianna Huffington

It’s a question that’s been puzzling mankind for decades: What are they thinking in Washington? Nobody’s ever been able to answer it because it’s a trick question. You see, they’re not actually thinking in Washington–they’re simply importing ideas from their corporate contributors. Just look at our energy policy. It’s the oil, coal, and gas lobby that’s doing the thinking; they’ve taken over both long-term policy and day-to-day environmental decisions. The result is a massive regulatory rollback and juicy profits for industry fat cats.

Since January 2001, the president and his energy-industry-friendly appointees (an understatement akin to calling mosquitoes "blood-friendly") have trashed the environment through dozens of actions. They have (take a breath) abandoned a campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, proposed reversing a prohibition on roadbuilding in 58.5 million acres of national forest, canceled a looming deadline for automakers to develop prototypes for high-mileage cars, rolled back safeguards for storing nuclear waste, proposed shifting Superfund hazardous-waste cleanup costs from polluters to taxpayers, blocked a program to stem the discharge of raw sewage into America’s waters, and undermined protections for national parks and national monuments. And that’s just a partial list.

Congress joined in the fun by shooting down a proposal that would have increased renewable-energy production and voting to subsidize polluting factory farms and limit funding for all kinds of environmental programs. Wetlands? Who needs ’em? More federal oversight of Enron-esque energy trading? Absolutely unnecessary! While the House surrendered its authority to modify international trade deals that threaten environmental laws, the Senate voted to weaken efficiency standards for home air conditioners (a brilliant strategy to gear up for global warming, perhaps?).

And then, there’s fuel economy.

Along with doing everything in its considerable power to find a way to realize its cherished dream of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Bush administration has also worked tirelessly to promote an energy plan that is long on building new power plants but so pathetically indifferent, even hostile, to the idea of conservation that it doesn’t address the single most obvious and effective step we can take to save energy: increase auto fuel-economy standards.

Instead, the Bush plan merely recommends "further study" of the issue–Washington shorthand for consigning it to the junkyard–thereby sidestepping the need to require sport-utility vehicles and pickups, which now account for nearly 50 percent of the vehicles sold in America, to meet the same mileage requirements as cars. Indeed, when Saddam Hussein decided to cut off Iraqi oil exports for 30 days, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham responded by–fasten your seat belts–saying he planned to meet with officials of the American Automobile Association to talk about ways drivers might cut down on oil consumption. Like what? Not leaving the engine of your SUV idling while waiting to pick up your Big Mac in the drive-thru lane?

Helpful hints are all well and good, but if Secretary Abraham really wanted to make America less vulnerable to Hussein’s oily schemes, he should have put his AAA plans in neutral and instead turned to raising mileage standards, something we all know works. It took an oil crisis to convince Congress the first time around, but thanks to the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) rules instituted in 1975, our cars actually consumed less oil in 1980 than they did five years earlier.

Unfortunately, we’ve been backsliding ever since. Our legislators have sat on their hands while oil consumption has risen and average fuel-economy has declined. From 1994 to 2000, Congress refused to even consider revising CAFE standards. Some progress appeared imminent two years ago, when the Senate asked the Department of Transportation and the National Academy of Sciences to investigate the issue. But fuel economy remains stalled. Instead of supporting the effort by Senators John Kerry (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) to gradually increase fuel standards over the next 13 years, in March the White House and 62 senators joined in an unholy alliance with carmakers and autoworker unions to kill the plan, which would have saved about 2.5 million barrels of oil a day, roughly the amount we currently import from the entire Middle East.

And it wasn’t just Republicans delivering the blows. Nineteen Democrats also voted against the measure in favor of an ineffectual "alternative" sponsored by Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.), one of the top recipients of automotive-sector largesse in the 2001—2002 election cycle. In total, the senators who voted down the plan received $570,000 from the auto industry and $3.3 million from the energy industry–more than twice as much per senator as those who voted for cleaner air.

With Congress falling in line with Bush’s agenda, his administration has begun painting the White House green. Gone are the days when Vice President Cheney would dismissively sniff that "conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound comprehensive energy policy." Bush is still presiding over anti-environmental policies that would make James Watt proud, but thanks to a newfound devotion to spin, the president has, at times, been presented as the second coming of Julia Butterfly Hill.

Remember the wide-eyed walk he took last summer though a Department of Energy showcase of energy-saving devices, including a state-of-the-art cell-phone charger? "When you multiply the number of chargers plugged into people’s walls all across America," the president enthused, "one can begin to realize significant savings all across the country." By golly, one certainly can. One can also recommend "further study."

After the tour, Bush grandly announced over $85 million in grants to encourage the development of renewable-energy technologies. Sure, it sounded good–but it simply restored the $85 million in funding for renewable energy the president had previously recommended cutting. It’s like a carjacker expecting a reward for returning the car he just boosted.

It’s also a drop in the bucket when compared with the billions in subsidies and tax incentives handed out to the president’s buddies in the oil, coal, and gas industries. These, apparently, did not need further study.

Bush has fought long and hard to soften his "let them drink arsenic" image with determined photo-op environmentalism. Take the White House’s handling of its rollback of the Clean Air Act. Belying his linguistically challenged reputation, Bush slyly dubbed his proposal the "Clear Skies Initiative" and said it "will do more to reduce power plant emissions than ever before in our nation’s history." (Actually, it will allow three times more mercury emissions and 50 percent more sulfur than current law, but hey, math is hard.) He made this statement to a cheering crowd gathered in the Adirondack Mountains, a place he claimed was inspirational to him because it was where "Teddy Roosevelt used to hang out." The old Bull Moose must have been gyrating in his grave.

It’s not surprising to see Bush wrap himself in the mantle of Roosevelt, the great Republican conservationist. Many pro-environmental positions, especially those related to energy use, are overwhelmingly supported not just by Democrats, but by two-thirds of Republicans. "It’s a shame," says Jim Scarantino, executive director of Republicans for Environmental Protection, "that a conservative administration had to be badgered into talking positively about efficiency."

But all you need to know about where Bush and company really stand on the subject of conservation can be found in documents recently unearthed by a court order. It turns out the White House dipped into the Department of Energy’s already meager funds for renewables and energy conservation–budgets Team Bush is planning to slash by half–to come up with over $135,000 for the printing of 10,000 copies of its industry-friendly energy plan. You can almost hear Dick Cheney chortling: "Who needs MasterCard when you can loot the lavish budgets for solar, wind, and geothermal energy?"

It’s more than a little ironic that, in his private life, President Bush is actually a leader in consumer conservation. His Crawford, Texas, ranch has been described as an environmentally sensitive showplace designed with "state-of-the-art energy efficiency." The house is filled with energy-saving devices, while the lawn and orchard are irrigated with recycled water.

Isn’t it time to insist that Bush starts preaching to the nation what he practices back at the ranch? And isn’t it time to punish the members of Congress whose vote against CAFE standards betrayed all Americans–from asthmatic children and seniors to young soldiers fighting for a secure supply of Mideast oil? Once every few years, voters can elbow aside the lobbyists and do just that.

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist and author of eight books. Her latest is How to Overthrow the Government (Regan Books, 2000).

Up to Top

Sierra Magazine home | Contact Us Privacy Policy/Your California Privacy Rights | Terms and Conditions of Use
Sierra Club® and "Explore, enjoy and protect the planet"®are registered trademarks of the Sierra Club. © Sierra Club 2019.
The Sierra Club Seal is a registered copyright, service mark, and trademark of the Sierra Club.