Bush's Environmental Strategy: Greenwashing the Truth
In the ongoing battle to protect the natural world, environmental impact statements and Environmental Protection Agency reports serve to alert the public about dangers that too often remain cloistered within the scientific community. Disclosures should be used as tools to help safeguard public health and the environment.
But that's not how they are handled within the Bush administration. Several recent incidents show that, when faced with environmental crises attributable to business interests cozy with the White House, the administration has developed an alternative response: Suppress, Ignore, Preempt.
A scandal has been brewing in Washington, D.C., since the Wall Street Journal reported February 20 that the EPA delayed releasing a critical environmental report on children's health for nine months. The document warns that mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants pose serious heath risks for kids. Up to 8 percent of women of childbearing age have dangerously high levels of mercury in their blood, high enough to greatly increase risk of neurological damage to infants.
It appears that President Bush's first instinct upon hearing this alarming information was to cover his tracks and to protect his corporate buddies: If not spun properly, public outrage about deep ties between the industries responsible for the mercury emissions and the Bush administration could prove politically explosive. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) blasted the suppression of the report, charging the White House with "sacrificing our children to special interests."
Months of delay -- and possibly consultations with energy industry chiefs -- allowed time for the president to craft his new "Clear Skies" initiative. Announced during the State of the Union address, the proposal sounds rosy enough, and it purports to cut mercury emissions. But its primary political purpose is to derail stricter regulations. Internal EPA documents show that full enforcement of existing Clean Air Act requirements would allow power plants to emit only five tons of mercury, as opposed to the 15 tons permitted by "Clear Skies."
The Bush administration has yet to come up with a more obnoxious response to environmental warnings than this sort of suppression -- but that's not for lack of trying. Another environmental story that broke in late February -- the decision to reverse a ban on snowmobiles in select national parks -- shows a second way in which the Bush administration deals with inconvenient reports: It simply ignores them.
Outraged by a Clinton-era plan to gradually eliminate the use of snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, the vehicles' manufacturers sued. As a result, the new Bush administration ordered a supplemental environmental impact study. It ultimately decided to eliminate the ban.
Here's the problem: The second impact study reached the same conclusion as the first -- that snowmobiles wreak environmental havoc. As Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) explains, "There's a reason that park rangers wear gas masks at the west entrance of Yellowstone. It's because they're subjected to chemical assault."
It turns out that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) -- a law designed to make public the environmental consequences of government decisions -- simply requires the Bush administration and the Parks Service to study the environmental impact of their policies. They don't have to listen to their own advice. Sound illogical? Drawing on some fine bureaucratic newspeak, Yellowstone National Park Planning Director, John Sacklin, offers a helpful clarification: "The agency-preferred alternative does not necessarily have to be the environmentally preferred alternative."
Willful misinterpretation is another method through which the Bush administration ignores what environmental impact studies actually say. In 2001, the White House requested that the National Academy of Sciences sort out the evidence on global warming. After the Academy returned its report, President Bush focused on portions detailing "Uncertainties in Climate Prediction," suggesting that global warming was a disputed concept.
What he failed to address were the Academy's central conclusions: That global warming is a real threat, that it has intensified in the past 20 years and that greenhouse gases like CO2 are the most likely cause. When the administration's own EPA fortified these facts in 2002, placing even clearer blame on power plant emissions for causing climate change, President Bush shrugged off the findings as a "report put out by the bureaucracy."
"He says he wants sound science to guide the debate, yet he dismisses and avoids anything that doesn't mesh with his political views," says Dr. Susanne Moser of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
And finally, today's White House dislikes even the small chance that a suppressed, ignored or misinterpreted report could cause them embarrassment. They would prefer that alarming documents were never written in the first place.
With this goal in mind, the White House's Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) opened a review of NEPA in June 2001. In need of a fox to guard the hen house, Bush selected James L. Connaughton -- a former mining and chemical industry lobbyist -- as CEQ chairman. Not surprisingly, the panel is exploring broad "categorical exemptions" to allow corporate developers to avoid reporting requirements.
Shamelessly exploiting the nation's feelings of insecurity, the CEQ claims that the exemptions are needed to keep terrorists from learning too much about the nation's infrastructure. That the public will remain in the dark about the impact of a wide range of environmentally sensitive projects, the CEQ argues, is a sad but necessary sacrifice.
The attack on NEPA is part of a larger move to usher in a new era of government secrecy. This effort has been highlighted by Vice President Dick Cheney's steadfast refusal to reveal the names of business executives and lobbyists who met with his 2001 Energy Task Force.
If this drive towards secrecy prevails, it won't be necessary to suppress or ignore many politically damaging reports. Such disclosures simply won't exist. And if public outrage over environmental damage wanes as a result, that's all to the good in the eyes of the Bush administration and its corporate allies. They would rather avoid the truth -- and its consequences -- altogether.
Mark Engler, a writer based in New York City, can be reached at email@example.com. Research assistance for this article provided by Katie Griffiths.