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Being Anti-Green Is No Piece of Cake
Published on Monday, March 19, 2001 in the Los Angeles Times
Being Anti-Green Is No Piece of Cake
by David Helvarg
The Bush White House is not the first to believe that what's good for General Motors is good for the U.S.A., but it is the first to make a chief lobbyist for the Big Three, Andrew Card, White House chief of staff. It's also the first to have an oil tanker named after its national security advisor (Condoleezza Rice used to sit on the board of Chevron). Now that the Bush Cabinet is also loaded with anti-environmental stalwarts and oil patch vets like Gale Norton, Ann Veneman, Spencer Abraham and Don Evans, the administration has begun talking about taking a more reasonable and balanced approach to the environment. Don't be fooled.

When it comes to all things green, the Bush folks seem to have learned their lesson from the outspoken Gingrich revolution of the mid-1990s that failed to gut America's keystone environmental laws. The former Texas governor's intent appears the same, to favor extractive industries like oil and timber over wilderness protection, and replace government enforcement with self-regulation by corporate polluters. Any doubts on that score have been settled by Bush's turnaround on a campaign pledge to reduce greenhouse CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants. Did he say "no new gases"?

However, no matter how bad the policies, they are all to be done in the name of balance. Norton, for example, has balanced photographs of national parks in the Department of Interior's hallways with new photographs of western mining operations and an offshore oil platform. And the president's primary environmental pledge--to increase funding for the national parks--is earmarked not for wildlife science and protection but building and road repair.

The rhetoric of moderation reflects one fundamental but precarious fact. For the first time since the Eisenhower administration, the Republican Party controls not only both chambers of Congress but also the White House. They are led by a president who, unlike his father, fully buys into the argument that environmental protection is bad for the economy (at least the fossil fuel economy of Enron, Koch Industries and Halliburton). Bush's budget does provide more than $1 billion for research into solar, wind and other clean energy sources, but only if the revenue can be generated from exploratory oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. By this logic he might also decide to fund the war on drugs by placing a user tax on cocaine and heroin.

Yet, for all their oil patch connections, the people around George W. are understandably fearful of being perceived as anti-green at a time when 80% of Americans still identify themselves as environmentalists. So what appears to be emerging is a plan to do industry's dirty work not in the open but through covert legislation and managerial fiat, with the rhetorical bombast turned down low. Even Utah Republican James Hansen, the head of the House Resources Committee who wants to increase public lands mining and open national parks to snowmobiles, jet skis, helicopters and airplanes, tells reporters he'd like to do this "in a reasonable, moderate, well-thought-out way."

Bill Clinton during his tenure as president vetoed between 70 and 75 anti-environmental riders, so-called stealth riders added to general spending bills. But if administration-driven amendments win a majority in today's House and Senate, they will undoubtedly be signed into law by Bush. With regulated industries and trade associations like the Edison Electric Institute also vetting new appointments to the EPA and other resource agencies, environmental law enforcement during the Bush years could prove about as fierce the California gnatcatcher.

Green groups such as the Sierra Club and a newly revitalized Greenpeace are looking to work with bipartisan coalitions of both Democrats anxious to reclaim power in the next election cycle and moderate Eastern Republicans who see the anti-environmental phobias of their Western colleagues as a threat to their party's staying power. The real challenge, however, will be if the enviros can get beyond a few high-profile battles like the fight over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. What these coalitions need to do is engage the public's interest in the trench warfare that will be taking place in Capitol Hill budget hearings and the corridors of countless government agencies and offices that are supposed to be protecting America's natural health and beauty.

David Helvarg, an investigative journalist, is author of "Blue Frontier -- Saving America's Living Seas" to be published by WH Freeman in April.

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times


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