Environment Bushwhack


U.S. Civil War General William Sherman is credited with uttering the sage words, “War is hell.” War is hell on the environment as well, and U.S. President George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” is no exception. Ironically, the environment being degraded is America’s own.

Wherever the skirmishes are fought, Americans will not need to look any further than their own backyards to tally the costs in terms of forests destroyed and air and water polluted. For now, however, these environmental costs — the consequences of strategic calculations and regulatory sleights by political appointees and policy wonks — remain unseen.

The media and civil society’s focus on war has created a smoke screen of fear and uncertainty behind which the Bush administration is systematically dismantling U.S. environmental policies. If successful, these changes could prove dramatically costly for the United States. Two recent reports out of Washington, one by the Natural Resources Defense Council and another by OMB Watch, document this piecemeal destruction of U.S. environmental policy.

“Although our landmark environmental laws are among the most popular and successful legislative efforts of the last 40 years, for the second year in a row they are under siege by the Bush administration,” reports the NRDC. “America’s environmental laws face a fundamental threat more sweeping and dangerous than any since the dawn of the modern environmental movement in 1970.”

NRDC places responsibility for the “siege” on the White House Office of Management and Budget, specifically the OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), which “has been busy identifying environmental safeguards that industry finds most objectionable” and targeting them for agency review and emasculation.

The message of OMB Watch is similar, if less dramatically stated. “The administration has: Finalized few significant health, safety and environmental protections; Proposed few significant protective actions; Been far less active than the two previous administrations; Generally acted only when compelled to by a statutory or judicial order; Watered down protective standards where they have been issued; Removed a slew of protective actions from agency regulatory agendas; Allowed scores of rulemakings to stagnate; and, Initiated few health, safety or environmental rulemakings.”

OMB Watch is a nongovernmental organization that oversees the operations of the OMB, part of the Executive Branch of the U.S. government that wields authority over policy- and decision-making.

According to NRDC, this assault on environmental policy has been under way for two years, and has escalated dramatically since the 2002 congressional elections in which Bush’s Republican Party won a majority over the Democratic Party. The NRDC report, titled “Rewriting the Rules,” claims that, “Over the past year environmental programs have been peppered with more than 100 weakening changes, affecting every program that protects our air, water, forests, wetlands, public health, wildlife and pristine wild areas.”

The report identifies four areas of particular concern. The first involves changes in the 1970 Clean Air Act, the backbone of air-pollution control in the U.S. NRDC reports that Bush’s administration seeks to change sections of the act that require old energy-related facilities to install state-of-the-art pollution controls. If the changes go through, “the nation’s oldest and dirtiest power plants and refineries” will be let off the hook, “allowing them to expand and modernize without installing updated pollution controls,” claims NRDC.

Also causing concern are Forest Service proposals “to eliminate the fundamental requirement that forest management plans protect wildlife, and to reduce public involvement in forest planning.” NRDC is alarmed that other proposals would allow “nearly unlimited clearcutting” of national forests in the name of fire prevention, and eliminate “mandates for public input and environmental review.”

Corporate protection

Water, too, is threatened. According to NRDC, new policies will “greatly reduce the number of wetlands and waterways protected by the Clean Water Act,” while new rules for factory farms ignore “water-pollution problems caused by millions of tons of untreated animal waste that routinely contaminates rivers.” NRDC claims that these rules will “protect corporate agriculture interests from financial liability for illegal spills and groundwater contamination.”

Even the landmark National Environmental Policy Act is under attack. For years this has guaranteed public participation in environmental decision-making, and required environmental-impact statements to be prepared for most federal actions with potential environmental consequences. NRDC reports that Bush administration proposals seek to scale back these requirements for environmental reviews and public participation.

Unfortunately, war myopia has sidelined environmental concerns and obscured the still-strong environmental priorities of Americans. NRDC cites a New York Times/CBS News poll in November that found 62 percent of Americans believe the federal government “should be doing more to protect our environment,” while only 7 percent felt it “should be doing less.” NRDC reports that the White House is aware of the unpopularity of its “7 percent agenda,” and routinely issues press releases of important environmental announcements when the media are least likely to respond, such as on Friday afternoons and before major holidays.

How does Bush stack up against his father and former President Bill Clinton? A comparison is eye-opening. George Bush Sr. was much more of an environmentalist than his son, according to OMB Watch. At the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “the Bush I administration finalized 14 significant rules over its first two years and the Clinton administration finalized 23, compared to two by the current administration. EPA proposed 12 significant regulatory actions over the first two years of the Bush I administration and 28 during the first two years of the Clinton administration, compared to nine under the current administration.”

For those still in doubt, Bush’s appointment of Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) to lead the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is revealing. The League of Conservation Voters, a nonprofit group monitoring congressional voting records, gave Inhofe’s lifetime environmental voting record a “0” rating.

If it hasn’t been said yet, let me be the first: Politics are hell on the environment.