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
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