Sunday, August 22, 2004

Election 2004 (Issue 5- The Environment: The Need For A New Direction?)

In an election in which war and the state of the economy are dominating the agenda, environmental issues have taken the back burner. This is unfortunate since Kerry and Bush have many substantive differences on environmental policy that have large implications for the nation’s resources, our health, and our long-term security.

When discussing the environmental platforms of both candidates we (again) have a presidential record for Bush but not for Kerry, although we do have almost two decades worth of Senate votes for the democratic challenger. It is best to begin my summarizing the major environmental initiatives of the Bush administration to date.

The only major environmental victory of the last three and a half years has been the decision by the Bush administration to enact the mandatory diesel emission reductions proposed during the Clinton administration. Diesel fuel, used primarily by large trucks and trains, is one of the least regulated and most polluting fuels, and this legislation will markedly improve the nation’s air quality.

Besides this initiative, the consensus in the environmental community is that the Bush administration has sided almost exclusively with industry and special interests at the expense of the environment. It’s not difficult to make this case. Here’s why:

1. The president’s proposed Energy Bill was little more than tens of billions of dollars in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. John McCain rightly called it the “leave no lobbyist behind” bill. One of the centerpieces was opening up the Artic Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration even though the potential finds would be small. In addition, behind the scenes the Interior Department has been issuing a near record number of oil and gas leases on Federal lands, some in extremely sensitive ecological environments. The department has also allowed coal companies to continue what is known as “mountain top removal” and dump the waste in streams, destroying hundreds of miles of waterways.

2. One of Bush’s campaign pledges in 2000 was to regulate CO2 (the main contributor to global warming) as a pollutant. Not only has he reneged on this promise, but his administration has threatened lawsuits against a number of states that have enacted legislation that treats CO2 as a pollutant. Bush’s “Clear Skies Initiative” is almost exclusively based on voluntary air pollution reductions and so far very few companies have signed on.

3. Bush has designated a near record low number of acres as new wilderness during his term, compared both to Clinton and his Republican predecessors, including his father. In addition, his administration has decided not to follow through on Clinton’s “Roadless Rule,” which called for no new roads in areas of our National Forests that are currently roadless. This initiative was based on more than one million public comments and scientific input reviewed over many years.

4. The administration changed the rules so that the military does not have to honor the Endangered Species Act for military exercises. This was done in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 purportedly to increase national security, but destroying our national heritage in the name of combating terrorism is nonsensical.

5. The administration decided not to reinstate the “polluter pays” principle at the nation’s Superfund sites, shifting the burden away from industry onto taxpayers. The result is that the Superfund trust is nearly bankrupt and its toxic cleanup efforts have decreased dramatically in the last three years.

The above examples outline the major setbacks for the environment during the Bush administration but the list could go on. None of these are particularly surprising since not only are extractive resource industries some of the GOP’s and Bush’s biggest campaign contributors, but the Bush team is comprised heavily of former oil executives; Dick Cheney the most prominent. As a side note, during the California energy crisis Cheney blamed California’s strict environmental regulations for the lack of adequate supply and called conservation a “personal virtue,” but not a sound basis for policy. Not only did the California public answer the call of conservation, cutting their power consumption by more than 10% in record time, but evidence has shown conclusively that energy traders were manipulating the market and creating false shortages in order to reap record profits.

If Bush is elected for a second term there is nothing to indicate that we would see any major shift in his environmental policy or priorities. The administration has already pledged to try once again to pass its twice failed Energy Bill, has consistently ignored the issue of global warming, and offered no new conservation initiatives.

The question we need to ask is what would Kerry do differently if he were president?

To get a sense we can first examine John Kerry’s environmental record during his Senate career. The League of Conservation Voters rates Kerry’s overall environmental voting record at 96 out of 100 (the highest amongst all of the original nine democratic candidates). Kerry consistently voted to strength the Clean Air and Water Acts, expand protected wilderness areas, increase fuel efficiency (even proposing a gas tax in the early 1990’s), and promote alternative energy.

In a potential Kerry presidency it is important to recognize what Kerry wouldn’t do. Kerry voted against Bush’s Energy Bill and he would likely reverse Bush’s decision not to enact the Roadless Initiative.

On the proactive side, the centerpiece of Kerry’s environmental agenda so far has been his plan to cut U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Kerry understands that our long-term interests are not well-served by our continued reliance on foreign oil, even though his initiative makes some unrealistic claims about how quickly we will be able to decrease our dependence on the Middle East. His energy policy calls for large-scale investment in alternative fuel technologies, both on the research and production side. As mentioned in an earlier piece (5-02-04), this would have not only environmental benefits, but would produce many new jobs and increase American competitiveness.

With respect to the larger issue of global warming, it is unclear if Kerry would back some variant of the Kyoto protocol, given his ambivalence towards the original protocol. His energy plan, however, would put us in the right direction by reducing greenhouse gases, but it remains to be seen whether Kerry would have the political will to re-engage the U.S. in serious international climate change negotiations.

In summary, with Bush we get a president whose policies have largely favored the interests of industry over environmental protection and this is not likely to change in a second term. With Kerry we get a man who has for almost two decades consistently voted in favor of strong environment protections and whose energy policy would steer the country in a new and better direction.

J.S.

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