Even if global warming isn't real, the rhetoric over President George W. Bush's environmental record alone is hot enough to raise the temperature in Washington. "It's the worst environmental record in American history," charges Carl Pope, the Sierra Club's executive director. Absurd, retorts James L. Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). When Bush Administration plans are implemented, he says, "the air will be cleaner, the water will be cleaner, and more wetlands will be protected."
So who's right? It's a big question on Capitol Hill right now. Bush has nominated Utah Governor Michael O. Leavitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency, and a number of Democratic senators are holding up a vote to expose what they see as a failing Administration performance. Cut through the hyperbole though, and "it's a mixed record," says Henry D. Jacoby, an environmental expert at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management. The Bush clean-air initiative, for instance, will slash pollution. But the reductions aren't as great as might be achieved under current law.
The White House gets credit for backing tougher standards for diesel engines, for a plan to clean up PCBs in the Hudson River, and for enabling the redevelopment of contaminated, urban "brownfield" sites. In other cases, such as efforts to open up more federal lands for mining, drilling, or logging, there's an underlying philosophical difference. "A small segment of our critics think all public lands should be off-limits to the public," explains CEQ's Connaughton. Lands managed by the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management should, by law, be "oriented to economic uses," he argues.
Hard-core environmentalists, of course, are aghast at the idea of more drilling for oil on public lands, such as in national monuments or off the coast, as the White House has proposed. They see the economic exploitation of federal lands as another case of paying back the powerful industries that helped get Bush elected -- and that are vital to his chances in 2004. "The President doesn't have an environmental policy. He has a political policy," says Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust.
In fact, some career staffers at key environmental agencies charge that their Administration overseers are interested only in political spin -- looking green enough not to lose suburban voters. The national parks have "become the backdrop for the reelection of the President," says one longtime Park Service official. Mistrust is so high that some enviros refuse to credit Bush with decisions that do clearly benefit the environment. "All the goddamn Washington environmentalists care about is bashing Bush," complains one academic expert and a strong Administration critic. "There is this holy war going on, and we can't make any progress."
So behind the overheated rhetoric, what's real and what's not? BusinessWeek took a hard look:
The 1990 Clean Air Act amendments passed under Bush I brought a radical new approach to regulation. Instead of telling power plants how to reduce levels of acid-rain-causing sulfur dioxide (SO2), the law set caps and gave companies the flexibility to meet the caps in the most efficient way -- including buying and selling the rights to emit SO2. The law has been enormously successful, resulting in greater reductions at far lower cost than predicted.
Now, Bush II wants to extend the same scheme to get additional SO2 reductions, as well as big cuts in nitrogen oxides (a major contributor to smog and ozone) and mercury. "The reductions are greater than those proposed by any previous Administration -- and will cost our industry billions of dollars," says Dale E. Heydlauff, senior vice-president for governmental and environmental affairs at American Electric Power Co. (AEP ) AEP and other utilities support the so-called Clear Skies initiative, however, because it would sweep away a number of complicated enviro regulations covering those three pollutants -- and probably prevent a flood of costly litigation. It would also provide flexibility and certainty, "so we can plan ahead and avoid investments that might be rendered obsolete by future regulations," Heydlauff says.
The cap and trade approach has also been embraced by many environmental groups as the most efficient and effective type of regulation. So why is the Bush plan being attacked as "a dramatic rollback in protections for air," as Deb Callahan, president of the League of Conservation Voters, charges? The main reason: disappointment that the targets aren't lower. For instance, the White House plan sets a cap of 4.5 million tons of SO2 by 2010, down from 11 million today. But if all current laws were fully enforced, which is questionable considering probable litigation, the levels could be closer to 2 million tons.
In addition, the cap and trade approach allows companies to meet any given target more cheaply than under the current regs. Environmentalists argue that, in exchange for lowering the cost of the emissions reductions, the Administration should have called for greater reductions -- as Bush's father did with the acid-rain program. "Bush I said we could get lower industry costs -- and a better environmental outcome," says Joseph Goffman, senior attorney at Environmental Defense. "Bush II said we will have lower industry costs, but we're not promising more ambitious environmental outcomes. It is a critical contrast -- which really did undermine the credibility of the Clear Skies plan."
BOTTOM LINE:: The Bush plan will result in cleaner air -- but not as clean as the greens would like.
In January, 2003, the White House floated the idea of creating a new category of "isolated" waters that would not be subject to Clean Water Act rules. That sounds arcane, but to environmentalists it is nothing less than an assault on the nation's water. They say the definition could cover some 20% of the country's wetlands and 60% of streams -- those that don't flow all year. Under the proposal, developers or other industries would no longer need permits to fill, or discharge waste into, these isolated waters. "It would nullify the letter, the spirit, and the effectiveness of the Clean Water Act," charges Daniel Rosenberg of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The proposal provoked some 133,000 comments -- the majority of which were opposed to the idea. Opponents included state water-pollution control administrators -- normally foes of the environmentalists -- and hunting groups such as Ducks Unlimited Inc., which fear that wetland habitats for birds could be at risk. Are such concerns overblown? Tracy Mehan III, assistant administrator for water at the EPA, insists that the Administration is carefully studying the comments and won't put wetlands and streams at risk. "There is no predetermined outcome in this process," he says. "We are committed to protecting this resource." Of course, in this climate, enviros remain dubious.
BOTTOM LINE:: A big chunk of the nation's wetlands, streams, and rivers could be threatened. But little has actually happened yet, and may not, depending on where the Administration goes from here.
The Bush Record on public lands offers a similar story. In a series of proposals and actions, the White House has tried to lift existing protections on federal lands and open up areas to more drilling, mining, and logging. GOP supporters argue that the public is on their side. "Most Americans aren't as extreme as the Sierra Club, which quite literally wants to lock away thousands of acres so people can't enjoy them," says Republican pollster Frank Luntz. Administration officials argue, for instance, that the public wants to be able to ride snowmobiles in national parks.
The Administration's Healthy Forests Initiative is another case in point. Mark Rey, Agriculture Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment, argues that the plan, which makes it easier to log on federal lands, is vital for thinning forests and making them less susceptible to devastating fires. Plus, he says, "we think forests should be used for a broad range of experiences, services, and products." But enviros see it as way to let timber companies run rampant.
BOTTOM LINE:: Under the Bush proposals, "the cumulative impact will be much less land protection," says a GOP Hill aide. Nothing much has happened yet, but over time, "it could literally change the landscape," he says.
To many scientists and environmentalists, the possibility that human beings are warming the globe by spewing so-called greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere is the biggest environmental issue of our time. "When history books are written, this will be the issue that defines Bush's environmental legacy," says Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense. There's widespread agreement -- among enviros, academics, and industry -- that Bush has fumbled badly.
It wasn't just that candidate Bush proposed caps on carbon dioxide, then reneged on that promise, or that he rejected the international Kyoto Protocol, angering other governments as well as enviros. More important, he failed to come up with any sort of alternative plan for more than a year -- and then he issued a scheme of research and voluntary limits that's widely seen within his own Environmental Protection Agency as a sham. "It's stupid and bogus," scoffs one EPA climate staffer.
But this chapter of the Bush record is still incomplete. "Looking forward, whether or not the President remains in denial on global warming will have a dramatic impact on health of the planet, on how the world views America, and on how environmentalists view Bush," says Krupp. And the White House will soon be put to the test. The Senate is scheduled to vote in late October on a plan -- which has bipartisan support -- that would put modest caps on carbon dioxide emissions, just as Bush proposed during his campaign.
Those close to the Administration say that the White House has been divided on climate issue. But when decisions are made, they say, the politicos -- led by Karl Rove -- refuse to do anything that might reduce critical support in states seen as vital for reelection. "Their litmus test is to run anything on climate by their West Virginia supporters," says one industry source. So far, Bush's team has made the political calculation that the Administration's overall environmental record -- however much it's being bashed by the enviros -- is "balanced" enough to keep traditional Republican supporters on board without alienating too many mainstream voters.
Meanwhile, environmentalists are hoping to tip the balance by making green issues far more prominent in the upcoming 2004 election. But they face a tough challenge convincing a public more concerned about terrorism and the economy that terrible things are happening to the natural world -- especially when most of those bad things, if they occur at all, will happen in the future.
BOTTOM LINE:: The Bush environmental record isn't "bad" enough to skewer his reelection. And only in a second term will we really be able to see what his policies actually mean for the America's air, water, and landscape -- and the earth's climate.
By John Carey in Washington