Republicans Attack Obama's Environmental Protection From All Sides
Environmental protection in US under attack from extremist Tea Partiers backed by big business
It started on a sultry day in Houston when hundreds of protesters, mostly oil company employees, were bussed to a concert hall in their lunch hour to rally against a historic first step by Congress to reduce the pollution that causes climate change.
The event marked the start of a backlash by wealthy industry owners and conservative activists against Barack Obama's green agenda. Now it has snowballed into what green campaigners say is the greatest assault on environmental protection that America has ever seen.
Eighteen months after that Houston rally, the green agenda is under assault on multiple fronts, from cutbacks in recycling in Wisconsin to the loosening of regulations governing coal mining in West Virginia and a challenge to the authority of the White House and federal government to act on climate change.
"This is almost unprecedented in environmental history, in that they are moving in so many directions and in so many ways to effect the same results that even if they are only partly successful, it will still have a serious outcome," said Bill Becker, secretary of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, which monitors air pollution.
"It is as if they are trying to throw as much slop against a wall as they can and hoping some of it sticks in the end. The more they throw the more they feel may stick, and they are throwing quite a bit."
On Thursday Republicans introduced bills in both houses of Congress to strip the Obama administration of its powers to act on climate change. The bill introduced in the House and the Senate would bar the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from using existing air pollution laws to reduce carbon dioxide.
It would stop the EPA from regulating carbon emissions from power plants and factories. It would not strike down a deal, reached between the White House and car makers, to reduce car emissions. But it would allow no further reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from cars once that deal runs out in 2016.
"The energy tax prevention act stops cap-and-trade regulations from taking effect once and for all," said James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who is the Senate's most vocal climate change denier.
The bill is expected to pass easily in the House – where the Republicans are the majority, and where the bill has already gained support from a number of Democratic leaders. It will have a harder time in the Senate, where Democrats have a narrow majority.
But the bill represents only one line of attack. Last month's Republican spending proposal, which set out $61bn (£38bn) in cuts, reserved the biggest cut of any government agency for the EPA: $3bn, or 30% of its budget.
The brunt of the cuts are intended to starve the EPA of the funds it would need to begin regulating carbon dioxide.
But the proposals would also do away with funds for protecting salmon in San Francisco bay, or treating sewage going into Florida's lakes. It would weaken rules for mercury pollution from cement kilns, and allow wolf hunting once again. The proposals would also redirect $900m, raised from the proceeds of oil leases, which traditionally has been used to maintain state parks.
Campaigners say the cuts go far deeper than any enacted under George Bush, who was notorious for blocking action on global warming and for a more general opposition to government regulation of industry.
The cuts have even invaded the White House. The Republican proposal cut off funding for the post of Obama's energy and climate adviser and the state department envoy to the UN climate negotiations.
The White House downgraded the post of climate adviser this week, transferring the job to a section of the domestic policy council.
A number of Democratic senators are quietly complaining that – without a strong push back from Obama – the anti-environment campaign is in danger of doing lasting damage.
The anti-environment measures have spread beyond Washington. New Hampshire last week voted to leave a regional greenhouse gas reduction initiative, with several members of its house of representatives expressing doubt on climate science. "Neither man nor cow is responsible for global warming," said Shawn Jasper, a member of the state Republican leadership.
Tea Party governors in New Mexico and Maine have also moved to reverse air and water pollution laws, and efforts to promote alternative energy. In Pennsylvania the authorities have removed restrictions on natural gas drilling in state parks.
In Wisconsin the governor, Scott Walker, says he is cutting off funds to local recycling programmes. City councils told reporters they would no longer be able to offer kerbside pick-up of newspapers and glass for recycling.
Environmental campaigners describe an offensive on several fronts – legislative, regulatory, and funding – intended to block controls on industries that are heavily responsible for climate change pollution.
Florida and other states have taken aim at Obama's pet project, the creation of a high-speed rail network, and shut down rail building projects in their areas.
"What we have seen most recently is folks just basically taking the debate over the budget and the financial situation and using it as cover to attack core environmental protections," said Joe Mendelson, director of global warming policy at the National Wildlife Federation. "They are using the budget process as a costume to hide what they are doing – which is a full-on assault against our fundamental environmental protections."
Much of the momentum for the anti-environment agenda was provided by the success of extremist Tea Party candidates in last November's elections.
"Everything is about the next elections," said Doug Scott, director of the Illinois environmental protection agency. "You have people voting against things they supported for years because it is on the talking points just now."
Then there was the large infusion of cash from the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. The Kochs bankrolled the Tea Party group, Americans for Prosperity, which has said it spent $40m in the elections. Koch Industries and its employees donated $2.2m to candidates in last year's elections, more than corporations like Exxon Mobil, according to the Centre for Responsive Politics.
Their interest has not waned. Americans for Prosperity sees cutting environmental regulation – especially that related to climate change, which would cost the oil industry – as a key area.
"Energy policy is one of our top three priorities," said Phil Kerpen, policy director of Americans for Prosperity. "For me personally it's a top concern and major focus."
He added: "It is not that we are totally against environmental protection but in the hierarchy of values, it has taken a back seat."