News & Politics

Scorched Earth Policy

The Bush administration's environmental team is an environmental nightmare: they are friendly to corporate polluters, lax on enforcement and antagonistic to international cooperation.
When environmental leaders talk about the Bush Administration's team -- Secretary of Interior Gale Norton, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Christine Todd Whitman and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham -- the operative word is "scary."

About Norton, an extremist advocate of private property rights during a long public career, Endangered Species Coalition Executive Director Brock Evans says, "This is the scariest nomination for Secretary of Interior I have witnessed in 20 years. The implications for just about every place, every value, every resource protection that Americans have fought for over two decades are frightening." Mark Helm, a spokesperson for Friends of the Earth, calls the new administration a nightmare. By choosing people like Gale Norton, Bush is calling for a war on the environment."

Joan Mulhern, legislative counsel for the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, is also aghast at the prospect of four years of Gale Norton at Interior. "Her appointment is very troubling," she says. "And we believe she will take extreme positions across the board against public lands and in favor of private property rights. There will be significant loss of protection."

Although these and many other environmental groups mounted determined campaigns against their nominations (Greenpeace even unfurled an anti-Norton banner at the Interior Department, leading to three arrests), all of Bush's environmental picks sailed through to confirmation. The combination of Norton, Abraham and Whitman in key positions is likely to mean that environmentalists will spend the next four years fighting a rear-guard action against regulatory rollbacks and struggling to gather congressional support against bad policies, including proposed oil drilling in the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

Blood for Oil

The battle over ANWR drilling will be a key one, as it's obviously a top priority for the oil-friendly Bush Administration and the only environmental issue discussed during the Presidential debates. No less than four top Bush aides have close oil ties, as does the President himself, and they speak of opening up the 1.5-million-acre refuge with near-religious fervor. But environmentalists will not surrender "America's Serengeti" without an intense fight that will recall many similar encounters, such as the confrontation over unhindered logging in the days of Reagan-era Interior Secretary James Watt, and the environmental rollbacks that were part of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America."

"Clearly, destroying one of the most spectacular places on the planet is too high a price to pay for politics as usual," said the Sierra Club in a report last year. But that destruction has long been on the Republican agenda, and never more so than in the Bush Administration. Both Bush and Interior Secretary Norton have used California's electricity crisis as a justification for drilling in Alaska, even though the region's oil could not actually start flowing until 2007 and most electric plants in California are fueled by natural gas. During her confirmation hearings, Norton claimed that ANWR held "the largest energy reserves ever found in the United States," and that it could be extracted in what she called "an environmentally responsible way" by drilling only in "the dead of winter."

But Adam Kolton, Arctic campaign director of the Alaska Wilderness League, says that drilling in any season is extremely damaging to ANWR. "Winter seismic vehicle tracks from exploratory tests done 15 years ago are still visible," he says. "The arctic tundra has still not recovered."

Alaska Senator Frank Murkowski, a Republican who has led the fight for ANWR drilling, waves away such concerns. He says drilling poses no danger to the migratory birds, caribou, wolverines, musk oxen, polar and grizzly bears living in the refuge. But a look 60 miles to the west, to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields, proves otherwise. With its pipelines, roads, drilling pads, wells, waste pits and airstrips, the ruined tundra of the oil fields covers 800 square miles.

According to the Alaska Wilderness League, 95 percent of Alaska's Arctic Slope is already open for exploration. Contradicting Norton, the group says that little

recoverable oil lies beneath the refuge's coastal plain. A 1987 report prepared for the drilling-friendly Reagan Administration projected an only one-in-five chance of discovering economically viable oil there. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, at best the Arctic Refuge contains 3.2 billion barrels of oil, which is only six month's supply at current consumption rates.

Melanie Griffin, the Sierra Club's director of land protection programs, suggests increasing investment in renewable energy and conservation technologies as an alternative to oil drilling. "But in this political climate," she says, "there's not a lot of support for that."

And why is that, you may ask? If we were less dependent on foreign oil, wouldn't we be less susceptible to economic damage from price increases? To understand why that argument falls on deaf ears in Congress, just follow the money. Senators voting to remove the Alaska oil ban in 1995 received 5.3 times more money from oil and gas political action committees than did senators who voted against lifting the ban, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP).

Alaska's Murkowski was the Senate's leading recipient of energy and natural resource money in the 1997 to 1998 election cycle. Big oil and auto companies contributed $33.5 million overall to political candidates during that period. The oil industry alone gave $22 million, more than any other energy or natural resource sector, CRP reports. Of that total, 76 percent went to Republican candidates considered friendly to industry interests. Big oil was particularly generous to Alaskan Congressman Don Young, who was helped to victory with $119,708. Young is an outspoken critic of environmental initiatives.

Bush himself raised a huge percentage of his campaign cash from oil and gas interests, including a record $21.3 million at a single fundraiser hosted by Kenneth Lay, chief executive of Enron, the largest natural gas dealer in the U.S. The industry's allocations followed the pattern of the 1997 to 1998 election cycle, when 76 percent of the $22 million donated by oil interests went to Republican candidates.

Vice President Dick Cheney was plucked directly into the campaign from the helm of the Texas-based oil services giant Halliburton, Inc., which helped rebuild Iraq's petroleum industry after the Persian Gulf War. Cheney, who is likely to have considerable influence in the Bush Administration, is hostile toward energy conservation in general and tax subsidies for clean vehicles in particular. Speaking at a recreational vehicle plant in Washington State during the campaign, Cheney made points with the audience by declaring, "You have a solar panel on your house, you get tax relief. If you drive a solar-powered car, you get tax relief. It's goofy."

Bush himself is clueless on such matters. During a Los Angeles stop in the early days of the 2000 Presidential campaign, Bush listened to the complaints of a man who rode two slow buses to work every day and wanted transit improvements. "My hope is that you will be able to find good enough work, so you'll be able to afford a car," replied a helpful Bush.

The auto industry has a direct pipeline to the Bush Administration in the person of Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card, Jr. From 1993 to 1998, Card was the president of the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, "where he oversaw the lobbying against tighter fuel-economy and air pollution regulations for automobiles," as The New York Times described it. From there, it was on to a vice presidency at General Motors.

National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, a former Chevron board member, has an oil tanker named after her. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, defeated last November as U.S. Senator from Michigan, twice co-sponsored bills calling for drilling in the Arctic Refuge. He consistently opposed raising Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards for the auto industry, voted against $62 million for solar and other renewables in the Energy Department budget and, of course, also tried to abolish the Energy Department itself.

The League of Conservation Voters (LCV) reported itself "stunned" by Abraham's appointment, since he was the group's number one target for defeat in 2000. In the Senate, Abraham's lifetime LCV environmental voting record was five percent. According to the group, he accepted more campaign contributions from polluting industries and interests than any other congressional candidate, more than $700,000.

Gale Norton: Polluters' Most Valuable Player

Interior Secretary Gale Norton is a former protégé of James Watt, the fierce foe of the environment who held the job under President Ronald Reagan. According to "Gale Ann Norton: An Environmental Profile," a comprehensive report prepared by six major green groups, Norton began her career as a moderate but has moved steadily to the right, embracing extreme libertarian views. Norton has claimed that corporations have a "right to pollute," and embraced the Confederacy's view of state sovereignty. During her career as Colorado's attorney general in the 1990s, she slashed the environmental budget by a third and argued that the Endangered Species Act is unconstitutional. Despite her assurance during the confirmation hearings that she would uphold the law, she showed a marked inability to do so while serving in Colorado. Norton "sat out fights when a corporate power plant broke air pollution laws 19,000 times, a refinery leaked toxins into a creek and a logging mill conducted illegal midnight burns," according to the Denver Post.

Norton was also accused of abandoning her prosecutorial responsibilities in the landmark Summitville case. In 1992, a Southern Colorado gold mine discharged cyanide into the Alamosa River, killing every living thing within a 17-mile stretch, then it promptly declared bankruptcy. The attorney general's office allegedly did nothing while the EPA stepped in and launched a $20 million cleanup. "It's hard for me to understand what the state attorney's office did there," says Mark Hughes, a Denver-based attorney

representing the Sierra Club. During the confirmation hearings, Norton took credit for "millions and millions of dollars" recovered from the mine operator, but this was due to federal prosecutors who pursued criminal charges.

Norton is a major proponent of "takings" laws that have the effect of providing compensation to property owners affected by environmental rulings, and she supported a 1994 Colorado law allowing "self policing" of the state's polluting industries. During her term as associate solicitor in the Reagan-era Interior Department, she drafted an early call for ANWR drilling. Norton is a founder, along with right-wing activist Grover Norquist, of the greenwashing group Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, which advocates what it calls "free-market environmentalism." The council's members are mining groups, auto companies, property rights advocates and chemical industries. Republicans for Environmental Protection, a group that actually does advocate for the environment, has called Norton's council "a green scam."

Lisa Wade Raasch, communications director at the League of Conservation Voters, points out that after leaving state employ in 1998, Norton registered as a lobbyist on behalf of NL Industries, a lead paint manufacturer (once known as National Lead Company). NL has been a defendant in 75 lawsuits involving toxic waste sites and 12 involving lead poisoning of children. "She worked to help NL escape liability for its products," Raasch says.

Christine Todd Whitman: Industry's Friend

Many environmental groups pronounced themselves "cautiously optimistic" about former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman's appointment as EPA Secretary, particularly since she's amassed a very public record of support for anti-sprawl and "Smart Growth" initiatives, coupled with $1 billion in state spending on open space protection. "In the scheme of things, we're happy with her nomination," says Brian Keane of the Conservation Law Foundation.

But Jeff Tittel, who's had a chance to study Whitman up close as director of the Sierra Club's New Jersey chapter, describes her as "a pro-choice Gale Norton." Environmentalists, he says, are more comfortable with Whitman than some of President Bush's other appointments because she is a Northeastern governor and pro-choice on abortion. "People assume that means she's decent on the environment, but her record is actually much worse than people realize," Tittel says. "New Jersey, historically, because of all of our environmental problems, has had regulations that were stronger than those on the federal level. But instead of introducing new laws, Whitman has tried to weaken or eliminate the programs that were already in place. You might expect this in Texas, but New Jersey deserves better."

According to The Nation, during Whitman's two terms as governor, "fines of air and water polluters plummeted 70 percent…Moreover, she decapitated the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) staff by 738 employees in her first three years in office, cut the remaining staff's work week by five hours, eliminated fines of polluters as a source of DEP revenue and made large cuts in the DEP's budget." In addition, the Office of Environmental Prosecutor, a highly effective post, was abolished.

In 1992, New Jersey Republican Assemblyman Robert Shinn, Jr., at the behest of industry, introduced a bill to remove a raft of chemicals from the state's list of hazardous substances. The legislation failed, but Whitman rewarded Shinn by appointing him head of the DEP, where he proceeded on his own to remove 2,000 of 2,900 from the list. He also excluded from coverage any supplies weighing less than 500 pounds, meaning 55-gallon drums of highly toxic substances would not have to be reported. This is perhaps what Whitman meant when, in her 1996 budget address, she spoke of "moving our DEP away from command-and-control and towards cooperation."

A 1997 survey of New Jersey DEP staff by the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) drew some scathing comments: "Governor Whitman has systematically weakened virtually all DEP programs and policies," one worker wrote. "Housing, agriculture and chemical industries now dictate environmental policy and enforcement at NJ DEP." One administrator added, "Governor Whitman caters to industry." Another said, "We often bend over backwards to find creative ways to avoid penalizing people."

Tittel says that Whitman is adept at painting green camouflage on anti-environmental legislation. "Here's a classic Christie thing," he says. "In 1996, she proposed legislation that would change how the state measures discharges, allowing a 500 percent increase in toxins going into our waterways. When the rule came out, she signed it and then took school kids on a canoeing trip, telling them how the law would mean cleaner water for New Jersey. She puts a green face on everything with hikes and photo-ops, but she has no technical understanding of the issues."

Whitman's shaky knowledge of environmental science was underscored when, in a New York Times interview, she confused the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (global warming) with the holes in the Earth's ozone layer caused by the release of chloroflourocarbons (CFCs). Whitman, USA Today editorialized, needs to "fill in that troubling knowledge gap quickly."

If there's any reason for optimism about Whitman's term at EPA, it's in the area of preserving open space. Keith Schneider of the Michigan Land Use Institute says that Whitman "set the standard in the GOP for responding to voter concerns about sprawl." Some New Jerseyans complain, however, that Whitman's anti sprawl spending—$100 million a year for 10 years to preserve a million acres—has come at the expense of new park facilities for the state's disadvantaged. Insensitivity to New Jersey's minority residents is a charge that has dogged Whitman since she was photographed personally patting down a black crime suspect.

The Big Rollback

How will the environment fare under President George W. Bush? John Bianchi, a spokesman for the National Audubon Society, offers wishful thinking when he says, "We would hope that the Bush Administration would embrace the traditional Republican conservationist approach, which is part of a long tradition that started with Teddy Roosevelt." Bianchi also noted that the EPA was created under President Richard Nixon, who also signed the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act into law.

By bringing in James Watt to head the Interior Department, Ronald Reagan brought that tradition to an abrupt end. George Bush Sr., says Bianchi, "was pretty neutral on the environment. He didn't introduce any sweeping legislation, but he didn't spearhead an assault on environmental protection either. And that's in step with the feelings of the American people, 98 percent of whom favor protection for unique areas and preservation of existing laws."

George W. Bush's environmental role model, apparently, is Ronald Reagan, not his own father. From its first day in office, the Bush Administration made it clear that it would seek to undo Clinton-era environmental regulations. In its sights is the blizzard of executive orders and proclamations issued in the final days of Clinton's term that, among many other things, created new national monuments, imposed bans and restrictions on snowmobiles and Jet Skis in national parks and established 60 million acres of roadless areas on national forest land.

When the Bush Administration was only hours old, Chief of Staff Card sent a memo to every agency head seeking to stop or delay publication of Clinton's last-minute rules in the Federal Register. Bush appointees including Norton and Whitman, as well as Bush himself, announced their intention to "review" many of Clinton's directives. They'll undoubtedly have help from Attorney General John Ashcroft, a far-right conservative with a zero rating from the League of Conservation Voters who proclaimed himself a "private environmentalist." His environmentalism "has been very private indeed," says Joan Mulhern of Earthjustice, "so private it's impossible to find evidence of it in his voting record [in the Senate]."

How effective will the Bush Administration's tactics be? According to Leslie Jones, staff attorney at the Wilderness Society, "It's very difficult to make generalizations. The monument designations are Presidential proclamations made under the federal Antiquities Act and therefore very difficult to repeal or rescind. But they will chip away at them. The Forest Service's roadless area plan is already a final rule published in the Federal Register, so changing it requires a whole process of going back through the rule-making with notices and comments all over again." Soon after taking office, Bush reversed himself on a campaign pledge to impose mandatory restrictions on global warming gasses, a decision that would have significantly impacted the coal industry. Bush changed his position after heavy lobbying from the coal and electric power industries. Efforts to undermine Clinton-era environmental policies were also underway, though some of these were technical policy shifts that take place under the media's radar. In just his first few months in office, Bush also repealed rules that required mining companies not to endanger public health or damage the environment, began a rollback of National Forest protections, withdrew standards for arsenic in drinking water and signed a bill overturning the Clinton-era rule requiring workplaces to address the problem of repetitive stress syndrome (which affects more than 1.8 million workers, most of them women).

Few environmentalists doubt that the attack on environmental regulations and policies will be relentless in the Bush years, and that in areas where the law can't be changed, non-enforcement (as in Norton's Colorado and Whitman's New Jersey) will be rife. For the environmental community, this is the naked face of compassionate conservatism.

Jim Motavalli is editor of E. Research assistance by Brian Howard and Roxanne Khamsi.