Commentary: Enviros: Don't Squander Bush's Breakthrough

From the outrage coming from the environmental community, you might think President Bush's new plan to cut air pollution and slow global warming would turn America into a smog-choked inferno. "A stealth attack on the nation's clean-air laws," says Conrad Schneider, advocacy director of the Clean Air Task Force. "A massive increase dressed up as a cut," says Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust.

Don't be fooled. Bush's plan, unveiled on Feb. 14, is a step forward. It offers a number of prescriptions that have been on the enviros' wish list, such as tax credits for renewable energy, along with a market-based emissions-trading system that would enable companies to meet stricter pollution levels at less cost than with other approaches.

The plan also represents a seismic political shift. Bush's call to action knocks the footing out from under conservatives who have stymied efforts in Washington to tackle global warming or cut air pollution. The proposal "may not go far enough," says House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.), a GOP moderate. "But it will break the long-standing stalemate over clean-air policy on Capitol Hill."

And give Bush some credit for learning. Last year, the White House had no clue that its plan to roll back arsenic limits in drinking water would cause an uproar, forcing the Administration to backpedal furiously. This time, Bush listened to Environmental Protection Agency chief Christine Todd Whitman and other moderates.

The new air-pollution proposal, for instance, is based on an idea that Whitman--and many environmentalists--advocated for years. Instead of telling utilities what pollution-control equipment to use, the proposal sets mandatory caps on emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides, and mercury. Companies could then use any method they want to stay under the caps. They could even buy emissions reductions from others if that turns out to be cheaper. "Bush was right on target in describing cap and trade as a policy tool, almost as if he was reading from a report we wrote in 2000," says senior attorney Joseph Goffman of Environmental Defense.

The White House's new plan to combat global warming, however, isn't so close to the enviros' playbook. It would barely slow the increases in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases instead of cutting them. And it asks companies to voluntarily report CO2 emissions instead of making reporting mandatory. But the fact that Bush says action is needed on climate change "shifts the debate once and for all from whether to limit greenhouse gases to how much," says a key GOP Hill staffer. "This is a Rubicon that will be hard to cross back over."

So if the Bush plan represents progress, why are environmentalists carrying on as if it were just so much toxic waste? Simple: They fear that any support for the overall plan will boost the chances that its specific goals and targets, which they see as far too weak, could become law. "This is the first time the Administration has tried to do something other than smash-mouth football with environmental-policy rollbacks," says Goffman. "But sometimes, subtlety is even more dangerous."

Still, the two sides aren't far apart on important details. Bush proposes a cap of 3 million tons a year of SO2 emitted from power plants by 2018, down from today's 11 million. Not enough, say enviros, who want a cap of 2 million tons by 2012. Surely it wouldn't be so hard to work out a compromise. It may even be possible to also include a cap on carbon dioxide to fight global warming, since many companies see CO2 curbs as inevitable anyway.

Setting targets now is better for the environment, of course. Yet it's also good for business since it would provide certainty about future regs. "I don't think I'm ever going to be able to satisfy all the skeptics," says the EPA's Whitman. But if the enviros back off their rhetoric, a golden opportunity could emerge to clear the air. Or at least start the job.

By John Carey

With Laura Cohn in Washington

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