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Environmentalists Re-check Priorities, Strategy After 9-11

Has attacking the president's environmental and consumer policies become an Act of Sedition? In the wake of September 11, many green organizations fear being tainted as insubordinate or, worse, dread that their pro-environmental actions will be perceived as some insidious move to thwart the underpinnings of a resilient America.

Immediately after the attacks, Greenpeace canceled its 30th anniversary celebration. Sierra Club called off a board meeting and a national members' meeting. The Sierra Club also stopped all mass communications -- advertising, phone banks and mailings. The Environmental Working Group and Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) postponed indefinitely a national report on toxic byproducts of chlorination in drinking water.

"We've been very aggressive in criticizing the president's policies," said Sierra Club western regional director, Carl Zichella. "But attacking the president would appear to be a disloyal thing to do. It's not a time for disunity. We're keeping the level of discord down."

Known far more for in-your-face flamboyancy than respect for the powers that be, even Greenpeace USA is toning down its activities. Greenpeace's Danny Kennedy demurred, "Tactically we have changed. In a period of mourning, some things may not be appropriate."

"Even though Frank Murkowski and other Republican Senators are trying to take the opportunity to [push their agendas], we're not going to do that," Kennedy continued. "We're not going to be opportunists."

A similar sentiment was voiced by many environmental leaders. Dan Jacobsen of California's PIRG said, "We don't think we should advance our public policy by using the terrorist attacks."

However, a few Republicans' post-terrorist moves have provoked environmentalists to push back. Right after the terrorist attacks, Congressmember Don Young (R-AK) was quoted that he thought eco-terrorists might be responsible for the damage.

"Your appropriation of an unprecedented national tragedy to highlight your anti-environmental political agenda is beyond shameless," responded Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group. "At a time when government, religious and community leaders from across the political spectrum were joining together to assure the American people, promote calm and restore confidence, you alone sought to direct public fears at fellow Americans."

Additionally, environmental and consumer groups are quietly strengthening their resolve, particularly on energy issues. Many organizations have pointed out that energy policy isn't just an environmental problem and an economic influence, it is also a national security concern. Over-reliance on fossil fuels, they say, has drawn us into conflicts in the oil-rich Middle East. Furthermore, the more the nation relies on renewable energy -- wind, solar, geothermal -- the less of a terrorist target pipelines and storage facilities can be. And if nuclear plants are shut down in favor of renewable energy, those high-profile and highly lethal targets would be far less appealing to terrorists.

Greenpeace is more active than ever in energy-related work. "We are all the more gung-ho on renewables," said Kennedy. "For instance, a system of distributed generation [where numerous small, local sources of energy would take the place of huge, centralized power plants] is a lot less vulnerable to this sort of attack."

Other green groups took a similar approach. "As Americans, we must now join together in shaping a strong response to terrorism," wrote John Adams, National Resources Defense Council president, in a letter to NRDC members. "For NRDC, that means advocating policies that will immediately begin reducing our nation's dependence on oil." Adams went on to call oil consumption an "Achilles heel," and added that an energy future that reduces "this dangerous addiction to oil is our only hope for getting us on a self-reliant energy path toward lasting national and environmental security."

The Sierra Club has been active in the past two weeks trying to thwart attempts to use the attacks as an excuse to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. Republican Oklahoma Senator James Imhofe is trying to attach riders to defense authorization bills HR 4 and S 389 to that effect. "Drilling in the Arctic wouldn't work half as well as efficiency measures," said Sierra Club's Zichella. "I hope people will continue to conserve, even though the crisis is arguably close to being over."

However, the Sierra Club, more than any other high-profile environmental group, is taking a low profile after the attacks. "We're waiting for right moment," Zichella explained. "We'll get back to Dick Cheney's energy task force. But now is not the right time to do that. If we threw brickbats [at the president] people would turn on us. If we become ineffective because we're insensitive to the public tone [we lose]. The public won't stay with us."

But Nettie Hoge, executive director of The Utility Reform Network (TURN), worries that green organizations will back off so much that their issues will be swallowed up.

"We [TURN] decided not to change our priorities in the wake of the World Trade Center," said Hoge. "I am more worried about the opposite problem. That is, that so much attention is being focused on WTC and its emotional and political aftermath that very important issues will be less compelling. Do you think the US Senate has the heart to push back as much as we know they should on the Bush-Cheney energy plan? Do you believe that the California energy crisis is getting the same type of media attention and analysis as it would if the tragedy had not happened? I fear we could overlook very important analytical tasks in our fervor for security."

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