The Worst of Times: Bush's Environmental Legacy Examined

U.S. President George W. Bush laughs during his final news conference in the Brady press briefing room at the White House in Washington, January 12, 2009. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/United States)

The Worst of Times: Bush's Environmental Legacy Examined

With four days to go until president-elect Barack Obama takes is inaugurated, history is documenting George Bush's environmental record at home and abroad.

The document released by the White House to commemorate George Bush's exit from the most powerful job on the planet describes a president who spent much of the last eight years as a careful steward of the planet. "Throughout his administration, President Bush made protecting the environment for future generations a top priority," says the booklet, Highlights of Accomplishments and Results.

"If only" - went the near-universal response from green organisations. They see the Bush years as a concerted assault, from the administration's undermining of the science on climate change to its dismantling of environmental safeguards to its support for mining and oil interests.

"He has undone decades if not a century of progress on the environment," said Josh Dorner, a spokesman for the Sierra Club, one of America's largest environmental groups.

"The Bush administration has introduced this pervasive rot into the federal government which has undermined the rule of law, undermined science, undermined basic competence and rendered government agencies unable to do their most basic function even if they wanted to. We're excited just to push the reset button."

The tone was set in the first 100 days when Bush reneged on a campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide from coal-burning power plants, the biggest contributors to global warming. Days later, the White House announced that America would not implement the Kyoto global climate change treaty.

The two moves at the time were seen as a sign of surrender from Bush, a former oil man, to America's coal and oil industries.

Christine Todd Whitman, who was the head of the Environmental Protection Agency at the time, later described the exit of Kyoto as "the equivalent to 'flipping the bird,' frankly, to the rest of the world".

But it was the manner of Bush's exit from Kyoto that provided the most sustained damage, say environmentalists, with the administration injecting doubt on the science that demonstrated an urgent need to deal with climate change.

"The idea of a head of state putting the science question on the table in the way that he did was horrifying to most of the rest of the world," said Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Centre on Global Climate Change.

The disinformation campaign became a defining element of the Bush era - and was perhaps the most damaging.

"Certainly the most destructive part of the Bush environmental legacy is not only his failure to act on global climate change, but his administration's covert attempt to silence the science alerting us to the urgency of the problem," said Jonathan Dorn of the Earth Policy Institute (EPA) in Washington.

The campaign to keep the public unaware of the evidence on climate change came to light in October 2004 when the Nasa scientist, James Hansen, accused the Bush administration of trying to block data showing an acceleration in global warming.

The full extent of the White House efforts to downplay, distort and outright censor the science on climate change remains unclear - but such efforts continued even after Hansen accused the Bush administration of censorship.

In July 2008, Jason Burnett, a former official at the EPA, wrote a letter to the Senate describing efforts by the office of the vice-president, Dick Cheney, and the White House Council on Environmental Quality to censor discussion of the consequences of climate change.

Burnett said the White House tried to circumvent a 2007 Supreme Court decision compelling the EPA to regulate car emissions by doctoring scientific findings on the costs of fuel-efficiency standards. The White House objected to a study showing the benefits of raising fuel standards outweighed the costs.

In 2008, officials from Cheney's office sought to doctor testimony prepared for a Senate hearing on California's efforts to impose stricter fuel efficiency requirements than the national standard.

Meanwhile, Bush officials began a concerted effort to strip away a regulatory regime that had been decades in the making.

"Every effort has been made to weaken existing law and there has been no effort to advance regulatory solutions to the most important issue we face, which is climate change," said Frances Beinecke, president of the National Resources Defence Council.

A particular target of the Bush administration's project of deregulation was the Endangered Species Act. The campaign was driven in part by the administration's concern that the act - with its protections for polar bears - could be used to force limits on greenhouse gas emissions.

As with the science on climate change, the Bush Administration has been accused of interfering with scientific findings on wildlife protection for political reasons.

An official report last month found widespread political interference in the management of endangered species. The inspector general's report said that the deputy secretary of the interior, Julie MacDonald, intervened repeatedly to prevent new additions to the endangered species list.

The report said MacDonald, who headed the endangered species protection programme at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, intervened improperly in 13 of the 20 cases under investigation, overruling the recommendations of field biologists that species be protected.

It described MacDonald's dealings with the field biologists as "abrupt and abrasive if not abusive".

MacDonald resigned in 2007. Dale Hall, a biologist who headed the service, called MacDonald's conduct "a blemish on the scientific integrity of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of the Interior".

Other controversial actions included:

* Gutting key sections of the Clean Water and Clean Air acts

* Dismantling the protections of the Endangered Species Act

* Opening millions of acres of wilderness to mining, oil and gas drilling, and logging

* Defunding programmes charged with the clean-up of toxic industrial wastes such as arsenic, lead and mercury

* Reducing the enforcement effort in the Environmental Protection Agency

* Removing grizzly bears and wolves from the endangered species list

* Endorsing commercial whaling

* Approving mountain-top removal for coal mining

Bush pursued the grand plan of deregulation to his last days in the White House, with a series of last-minute rule changes. Under the new rules, oil companies will be able to drill within sight of the Arches national park in Utah. Federal agencies will no longer be compelled to consult with government wildlife experts when they open up new areas for logging or road construction, and he also barred the EPA from looking at the effects of global warming on protected species.

Some positive changes in the past eight years were inadvertent. The Bush administration's refusal to cap carbon dioxide emissions acted as a catalyst, with 24 states acting on their own to put in place regional cap and trade networks. Some 27 states enacted renewable portfolios, mandating local power companies to produce more of their electricity from sun, wind and solar power. "A lot of things happened because the Bush Administration was so negative about a lot of things," said Claussen.

Bush expanded on a programme launched by Bill Clinton to reduce diesel exhaust, extending the rules to tractors, trains and small ships.

The administration did have one last-minute surprise in store for the green lobby though, by demonstrating a late commitment to ocean conservation. Just two weeks before leaving office, Bush designated nearly 200,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean as national monuments.

"We and others in the environmental community have been at odds with this administration on lots of things, but if one looks at this one event it is a significant conservation event," said Joshua Reichert, managing director of the Pew Environment Group.

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