U.S. Environmental Policy: Where is it Headed? / Dim Vision

U.S. Environmental Policy: Where is it Headed?


So far, the Bush administration has begun to redirect policies on international family planning, climate stabilization, renewable energy R&D, wilderness protection, endangered species protection, air and water quality standards, nuclear waste clean-up, environmental law enforcement, mining regulations, worker injury compensation, community right-to-know initiatives, drinking water standards, and food safety procedures. And that was just the first four months. World Watch presents a timeline of the administration's emerging environmental agenda.

On March 27, 2001, Christine Todd Whitman, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), announced that the United States, which is responsible for 25 percent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions, has "no interest" in the Kyoto Protocol. Despite a deluge of scientific reports linking human actions to climate destabilization, Whitman said that the new administration did not plan to endorse the Protocol, which was negotiated (with U.S. participation) in 1997 as a part of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, and which is intended to curb national carbon emissions.

International reaction was swift and highly unfavorable. French President Jacques Chirac asked, "how can we affirm the right of a protected and preserved environment to future generations" at a time of "global warming and of a disturbing unacceptable challenge to the Kyoto Protocol?" The Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement calling the U.S. about-face on Kyoto "irresponsible." Even the strongest traditional ally of the United States, the United Kingdom, criticized the decision to scrap Kyoto. British Environment Minister Michael Meacher said that global warming "is the most dangerous and fearful challenge to humanity over the next 100 years" and that Bush's decision was therefore "extremely serious."

In May, Vice President Dick Cheney unveiled the administration's new energy strategy, which calls for the construction of almost 2,000 additional coal-fired power plants over the next 20 years-or an average of more than one new power plant every week for that period. Cheney is a former CEO of the Halliburton Company, one of the world's largest energy firms, and now heads the administration's energy task force. President Bush is himself a former oil man. (For an overview of the Bush cabinet's corporate connections, see page 20.)

"Without a clear, coherent energy strategy," says Cheney, "all Americans could one day go through [the occasional rolling blackout] that Californians are experiencing now, or worse." In order to promote its supply-side thrust, the strategy would ease the regulations governing powerplant construction, as well as federal air pollution standards. The strategy would also promote the construction of additional nuclear powerplants. But its most controversial element has been its emphasis on expanded drilling: Cheney's recommendations include drilling for oil and natural gas in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and drilling for oil off the Florida panhandle in the Gulf of Mexico. Both of these areas are of great biological value.

Despite Cheney's call for a coherent energy strategy, the administration's budget for next year will cut federal spending on energy conservation and alternative energy programs. In April, Cheney himself told an audience of editors and reporters at the Associated Press's annual meeting that he believes "conservation might be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis-all by itself-for a sound coherent energy policy."

One week later, the country's top five national laboratories, including the Berkeley National Lab in California, released a report outlining an efficiency program that could reduce the country's electricity demand by 20 to 47 percent. The study found that government office buildings could cut their own power use by one-fifth by adopting conservation measures, at no cost to taxpayers.

Following Cheney's lead, President Bush is also promoting the new energy strategy as a necessary fix to a shortage of supply. Bush argues that "every American must realize we are in an energy crisis." But this crisis is difficult to locate: taking inflation into account, the cost of oil in the United States is 41 percent lower today than it was in 1980, in the wake of the oil shortages of the 1970s. And the problems in California (which the administration has repeatedly pointed to as the harbinger of national energy troubles) have more to do with botched deregulation than with fuel shortages. California's decision to open up its electricity markets to half-hearted competition forced utilities to vie for tight supplies of natural gas without being able to charge consumers for the growing expense. That has pushed Southern California Edison close to bankruptcy, and sent Pacific Gas and Electricity over the edge.

The administration's energy strategy appears to be representative of its approach to environmental issues in general. During its first four months in office, the Bush administration has discarded or delayed more than 20 environmental initiatives. It halted the implementation of new EPA limits on arsenic in drinking water. It modified a Clinton administration ban on road building in roughly 24 million hectares (60 million acres) of national forests-a change that could open up substantial tracts of relatively undisturbed wilderness to the mining and timber industries. Its 2002 budget reduces funding-by more than $8 billion-for environmental law enforcement, nuclear site clean-up, water quality assessments, energy efficiency, endangered species protection, research programs at the EPA, and a variety of other environmental and social safeguards. If these policies prevail in their current forms, the administration's environmental agenda could become one of its most lasting legacies-one that may command the attention (if not the approval) of the world community for many decades to come. On the following pages is a day-by-day account of the administration's emerging environmental agenda.

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