With the nation's attention squarely on war and terrorism, the Bush administration has ruled this fall in business' favor on a range of long-disputed environmental matters.
It allowed oil drilling in the red rocks of Utah and canyons of Colorado. It permitted an open-pit gold mine on a California desert site that the Quechan tribe considers sacred. And it signaled to developers across the country that they can, in many cases, build on wetlands without creating ones to replace them.
While other recent stands by the administration have pleased environmentalists, some worry that they have lost ground against President Bush's effort to make environmental policy more business-friendly. In its first several months, the administration proceeded cautiously in the face of considerable public resistance to environmental rollbacks. But as Bush's popularity has soared since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, his administration has made these decisions and similar ones without triggering public backlash.
"There is a quite distinct desire on the part of a number of agencies to hide under the air cover of the war in Afghanistan to roll back or weaken various environmental regulations while attention is on military developments in Afghanistan," said Phil Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust.
Administration officials scoff at that suggestion. They stress that their decisions reflect the administration's choice to give business a role in environmental policies that was denied in the Clinton administration.
"In our decision-making process, we've created balance," said Eric Ruff, Interior Department spokesman. "There are some in the environmental community who think the business community shouldn't have a seat at the table."
Environmentalists fear that the Clean Air Act may be hurt most by Bush's policies.
The administration is expected to give major polluters a variety of exemptions from a costly Clean Air Act requirement that plants install updated pollution controls when they renovate. Administration officials "tell us that we will like it," said William Kovacs, vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The White House defends its record, which includes the Environmental Protection Agency's decision in late October to embrace a Clinton administration plan to reduce the permissible level of arsenic in drinking water by 80%. And last week, the Bush administration told regulators that, for the time being, they could not consider statistics from human tests when setting exposure levels for pesticides.
"The president is moving forward on many initiatives that demonstrate his commitment to protecting the environment," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "There are some opponents of his who have tended to pollute his record of working to safeguard our environment and protect public health."
During the first several months of the administration, conservation and anti-pollution groups regularly attacked the president for his policies and decisions, and it was taking a toll on Bush's overall approval ratings in public opinion polls.
But over the last three months, the Bush administration's environmental stances have received little media and public attention and have not appeared to affect the president's standing in polls.
In late October, the administration removed a provision from hard-rock mining regulations that would have given federal land managers leeway to reject proposals for mines that could cause irreparable damage to Western landscapes or water sources. Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton also tossed out a Clinton administration ruling that rejected a Canadian company's proposal to dig an open-pit gold mine in the Imperial Valley.
The Quechan tribe filed suit last week challenging Norton's decision. Courtney Ann Coyle, the tribe's lawyer, said tribal members felt "deceived" by the government.
An environmental impact statement found that the mine would cause significant damage to air quality and visual, cultural, religious and archeological resources.
Many of the recent decisions were consistent with previously announced administration priorities, such as oil drilling on sensitive public lands.
"The things that have been happening are very consistent with the signals we got before 9/11," said Deb Callahan, president of the League of Conservation Voters. "There hasn't been a change. There has just been a continued progression of those things the administration wanted to get done."
Callahan said she believes the administration will pay a price in the long run. "These issues were on the top of the agenda before 9/11--it means the public cares about them--so they can be on top of the agenda again as we roll into the elections."
The Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management this fall sold multiple leases for oil development at two of the 16 places that environmental groups had been highlighting as too scenic and wild to drill.
Two of the leases were in Utah's Lockhart Basin, an area of red rock formations just outside Canyonlands National Park. Some members of Congress have introduced legislation to protect this region from development, and conservation groups have been negotiating with the Interior Department to declare it a wilderness area.
Environmentalists are suing the administration over these and 10 other leases in southern Utah, arguing that the agency failed to fulfill its legal responsibility to assess the environmental effect of developing the areas before it granted the leases.
"We are talking about leases in lands that are among the wildest, most scenic or most remote in southern Utah, in an area internationally known for wildness, remoteness and beauty," said Johanna Wald, a project director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
The administration also recently sold leases in Colorado's Vermillion Basin, a desert canyon region that conservation groups have long been trying to save from oil development.
The BLM ruled that vehicles could be driven through national monuments on any track, wash or trail where any vehicle has been before. The Clinton administration had restricted them to designated roads and trails.
And the Forest Service last week removed hurdles erected by the Clinton administration to road building in large backwoods areas of the national forests. Many of these areas, which are not included on the official inventory of roadless areas, provide key habitat for wildlife.
The administration also backed away from a commitment by the first President Bush not to allow wetland acreage to decline. An Oct. 31 letter from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to its 31 district offices says that developers may use dry land to partially offset wetland losses if they can show that the dry land helps protect remaining wetlands. For instance, a developer who builds a buffer of trees near a wetland can count that as making up for filling in a wetland elsewhere.
"Even though we've never achieved the goal of no net loss of wetlands, the rate of loss has dropped dramatically," said Joan Mulhern, legislative council for Earthjustice, an environmental law group. "This [letter] will speed up the process of loss again."
Congressional aides, state regulators and environmentalists say that the administration's bluntest blow to the environment will be the planned changes to the "new source review" provision of the Clean Air Act. Although the policy has yet to be announced, EPA officials have described it to interested parties.
"The kinds of changes that the administration is seeking are ones that could have a significantly detrimental impact on the environment," said S. William Becker, executive director of the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators and Assn. of Local Air Pollution Control Officials.
The administration intends to be generous in granting waivers to requirements that new pollution control devices accompany plant renovations, according to those who have been briefed by administration officials.
"It's going to mean terrible news for the breathing public," said Frank O'Donnell, executive director of Clean Air Trust, a nonprofit group. "I think Sept. 11 has strengthened the forces at the White House and Energy Department and the business groups that are anti-clean air."
Industry leaders complain that the new source review provision is bureaucratic and costly, and discourages them from renovating plants to make them more efficient.
Meanwhile, the administration has delayed introducing its proposal to reduce pollution from power plants, one of the president's few environmental campaign promises.
EPA officials had told the Senate it would produce a plan in August but now say that the policy has been delayed because of the White House preoccupation with the war on terrorism.
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times