News Intelligence Analysis
September 14, 2004
From the New York Times
Bush Record: New Priorities in Environment
By FELICITY BARRINGER
Every fall, after raising their young near Teshekpuk Lake and the Colville River, tens of thousands of geese and tundra swans leave the North Slope of Alaska for more southerly shores. Some end their journey at the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in the flatlands of North Carolina.
Both habitats could be transformed if current Bush administration initiatives come to pass. The birds would have oil rigs as neighbors in Alaska and be greeted by Navy jets simulating carrier takeoffs and landings in North Carolina.
That such projects could bracket the birds' path is not surprising in light of the priorities of the administration. Over the last three and a half years, federal officials have accelerated resource development on public lands. They have also pushed to eliminate regulatory hurdles for military and industrial projects.
From the start, Bush officials challenged the status quo and revised the traditional public-policy calculus on environmental decisions. They put an instant hold on many Clinton administration regulations, and the debates over those issues and others are intensely polarized.
The administration has sought to increase the harvesting of energy and other resources on public lands, to seek cooperative ways to reduce pollution, to free the military from environmental restrictions and to streamline - opponents say gut - regulatory and enforcement processes.
In a recent interview, Michael O. Leavitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, summed up the Bush administration's philosophy. "There is no environmental progress without economic prosperity," Mr. Leavitt said. "Once our competitiveness erodes, our capacity to make environmental gains is gone. There is nothing that promotes pollution like poverty."
The administration's approach has provoked a passionate response. Asked about his expectations in the event of President Bush's re-election, Senator James M. Jeffords, the Vermont independent who is the ranking minority member on the Environment and Public Works Committee, wrote in an e-mail message: "I expect the Bush administration to continue their assault on regulations designed to protect public health and the environment. I expect the Bush administration to continue underfunding compliance and enforcement activities."
Mr. Jeffords concluded, "I expect the Bush administration will go down in history as the greatest disaster for public health and the environment in the history of the United States."
For many environmental groups, Mr. Bush's legacy was assured in his first year, thanks to highly publicized decisions that effectively repudiated Clinton administration positions. Mr. Bush backed off a campaign pledge to regulate carbon dioxide and abandoned the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement to reduce heat-trapping gases linked to global warming. Then the administration pushed, unsuccessfully, for a law allowing oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It scrapped the phaseout of snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park and briefly dropped a Clinton proposal to cut the permissible level of arsenic in drinking water by 80 percent.
The cumulative effect was striking. The decisions sought to reverse environmental action for which there was broad support. Polls by The New York Times in mid-2001 and late 2002 consistently showed public opposition to drilling in the Arctic refuge. A CBS poll in the same period showed that, by ratios of better than two to one, those polled said that environmental protection was more important than energy production.
The outcry ensured that some Bush administration initiatives favorable to the cause of environmental groups received little notice. They include the E.P.A.'s decision to force General Electric to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to remove PCB's in the Hudson River, a cleanup that has been delayed; legislation speeding the cleanup of urban industrial sites known as brownfields; increases in financing for private land set aside for conservation of animals and their habitats; and the first limits for diesel emissions in trucks and off-road vehicles.
The diesel regulations, said James F. Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, would have as much impact on air quality as the rules that eliminated leaded gasoline. The clamor over the reversals, he said, "grossly overshadowed the accomplishments, which in scope and scale were of far greater consequence to environmental protection and natural resource conservation than anything people were complaining about."
The administration contends that free markets often provide the best solution to pollution. That belief underlies regulatory proposals to allow power plants that exceed their goals in reducing pollutants to sell cleanup credits to plants that fall short.
The failed "Clear Skies" act, incorporating this approach, was in many ways reborn in a pending regulation that Bush officials say would offer significant pollution reductions and that critics dismiss as a retreat from the mandates of the Clean Air Act.
Mr. Leavitt called the reasoning simple. "Rather than spend decades and millions litigating" to ensure power plants' compliance one at a time, "let's require everyone to do it essentially at the same time," he said. "And create incentives for them to do more as opposed to incentives to try to avoid."
Mr. Jeffords countered, "The relaxed Bush approach will produce more illness, disease and premature deaths than simply putting the federal government's full resources into achieving compliance with the Clean Air Act and pushing the development of cleaner, more efficient electricity generation."
The recent proposals for Alaska and North Carolina reflect some of the themes of the administration's overhaul of environmental policies.
In 1998, Bruce Babbitt, President Bill Clinton's interior secretary, opened to oil drilling four million acres of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. That is 87 percent of the landmass of the reserve's northeast quadrant. The 580,000 acres held back, including Teshekpuk Lake, were considered crucial wetlands habitat for molting and nesting fowl - swans, geese, peregrine falcons and other species - and for caribou and the hunters who live off them. But geological surveys show that large volumes of oil lie beneath much of that area. In June, the Interior Department proposed opening the lake and most of the remaining acreage to drilling, because, Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton said recently, "that's where the resource is."
Well before that proposal, a panel of the National Research Council, a private, nonprofit institution, issued a mixed report on the cumulative effects of 40 years of oil development on the North Slope. Bird populations, it found, dwindled as the numbers of predators like foxes and brown bears grew unnaturally large. The predators were drawn to the area by oil-field garbage.
Edward Porter, research manager for the American Petroleum Institute, said the situation was unlikely to recur around Teshekpuk Lake because the exploration envisioned would have few permanent facilities.
At the birds' other way station, in North Carolina, the prospective disturbances would be the latest F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet jet fighters, which would touch down and take off from a new airfield 31,650 times each year.
A Fish and Wildlife Service advisory in March raised concern; the noise of a jet taking off is two to four times greater than the level that startles such birds into flight. During their winter sojourn, the birds accumulate the fat that fuels their next migration. The more jets startle them into flight, the more they burn fat needed for the journey.
The Navy's review concluded that the birds "would not be affected." Navy officers also argued that the risk of collisions between birds and planes - which is estimated to be higher than at any other airfield in the country - could be mitigated.
When local North Carolinians and the Audubon Society went to court to block the project, the administration closed ranks, and the Interior Department, the parent agency of the Fish and Wildlife Service, supported the Navy. A United States District Court judge has temporarily blocked the Navy from proceeding.
In many ways, the issues in the birds' neighborhoods speak to the aims, tactics and results of the Bush environmental strategy as much as the better-known inventory of decisions, like the scuttling of the Clinton ban on new roads in 58.5 million acres of roadless national forests.
Environmentalists, for example, accuse the administration of trying to pressure or ignore its scientists, from those of the Pocosin biologists in North Carolina to Environmental Protection Agency scientists working on global warming. In several instances at the agency and at the Fish and Wildlife Service, political appointees aggressively policed agency scientific work that could form the basis of new regulations.
Administration officials, some of whom were lobbyists for the industries they now regulate, say the crucial factors in their thinking are scientific rigor and economic logic. Such priorities were cited in the proposal to expand drilling in Alaska.
The effort to offer the set-aside section of the Alaska petroleum reserve for leasing parallels moves across the West. Bureau of Land Management offices and their land-use plans have been re-engineered to streamline leasing and drilling decisions. From the beginning of the fiscal year, the number of drilling permits has increased to 5,222, the bureau reported. If that pace continues, the annual total will be more than 50 percent higher than the average in the previous three years.
Ms. Norton says that "less than one percent of the surface acres of the Bureau of Land Management have any disturbance for oil and gas production." With new safeguards for wildlife and technologies allowing several wells to branch underground from one well pad, both energy and environmental needs can be satisfied, she said.
The means by which energy development accelerated, like the revamping of land-use planning guidelines, is pretty dry stuff. So are procedural questions; for example, when a local office should clear decisions with headquarters. In the Bush years, officials have relied more on less-visible administrative action than on legislation to advance their agenda. For instance, local Army Corps of Engineers offices have been instructed to check with headquarters before taking jurisdiction over wetlands slated for development, a process that critics say discourages wetlands protection.
The administration had developed a draft proposal to curtail federal wetlands jurisdiction but had to back off after it was disclosed last fall and conservative hunters and fishermen blanched. At a White House meeting, leaders of fishing and hunting groups argued that the plan would degrade large tracts of wetlands and diminish nearby wildlife. Mr. Leavitt quickly repudiated the draft. Last Earth Day, President Bush, standing by salt marshes in Maine, called for a net gain in wetland acreage.
Last fall, Mr. Leavitt, the former governor of Utah, took over from Christie Whitman. She had resigned as E.P.A. administrator after two years as what Secretary of State Colin L. Powell called a "wind dummy" - a reference to the buffeting she took for the administration's unpopular initiatives.
The portfolio of issues Mr. Leavitt inherited is not in the same stage it was in in January 2001, at the start of the Bush administration. Many of the administration's environmental policies have laid a foundation for more comprehensive actions in a second term. Critics are convinced that efforts to increase oil and gas drilling on federal lands will accelerate, as will efforts to change laws like the Endangered Species Act.
Ms. Norton acknowledged that the issue of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, for example, would resurface because "that it is our largest prospect for onshore oil." She added, "There will be extensive environmental protections."
Asked if she would have done anything different in the last few years, she said: "I would have spent more time talking about our successes. Because we've accomplished a lot more than we've ever gotten credit for."
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
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