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Published: Saturday, 3/31/2001

White House Watch: Environmental policies need explaining

WASHINGTON - Environmentalists never cottoned to Bill Clinton. He talked their talk but never really walked their walk - until he was walking out of the Oval Office for the last time.

Then he was their best buddy, promulgating rules to reduce arsenic in drinking water, putting 58 million acres of forest land off limits to logging and road-building, putting new restrictions on hard-rock mining, extolling the virtues of the 1997 Kyoto Treaty on climate change, and increasing public access to information about chemical plant accidents.

Along came George W. Bush. Nobody expected him to be a Rachel Carson clone when he took office. But the ferocity of his attack on environmental regulations without serious explanation has taken the world aback.

While he publicly has focused like a laser beam on his campaign for a $1.6 trillion 10-year tax cut, in his spare time he has systematically rolled back most of the environmental regulations Mr. Clinton tried to enact in his waning hours as president.

It's not clear what Mr. Bush intends to be his final statement on such hot-button issues as arsenic in drinking water or developing 58 million acres of roadless forest. Environmentalists do not hold out much hope he'll see their perspective. They think he's courting business and conservatives for the mid-term elections for Congress next year.

But on global warming, Mr. Bush has left no doubt of his position. He has none, because he does not think it's a serious issue.

Christine Todd Whitman, former governor of New Jersey, found herself publicly overruled on Mr. Bush's campaign pledge to limit carbon dioxide emissions, which contribute to warming of the planet. No, Mr. Bush decided, California's energy problems ruled that out.

An embarrassed Ms. Whitman next had to tell the world that the United States was reversing its support of a treaty on global warming. She said there are too many questions about the science of global warming, and the United States disagrees with exempting disadvantaged countries from curbs on carbon dioxide emissions, saying this would challenge U.S. economic superiority.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder raced to the White House to tell Mr. Bush that just about all of Europe was appalled that the United States was reneging on global air pollution standards. The U.S. reversal dooms the Kyoto climate treaty - not yet ratified by any industrial power - to the trash heap of global accords, he said. The chancellor, said Mr. Bush after two hours, “is a very straightforward person.” The meeting was notable for “frankness,” said Mr. Schroeder.

Mr. Bush also has made clear he wants drilling OK'd for oil and gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, citing California's energy “crisis” as a prime example of why the United States should not be putting any domestic energy sources off limits.

Environmentalists say that Alaska's oil and gas wouldn't be available for a decade and thus would do nothing to help Californians deal with rolling blackouts. And they insist that Alaska's oil and gas resources in the reserve would provide only a six months' supply of energy for the lower 48 states.

All these are old, old arguments that go back to the never-resolved debate over costs and benefits. If there is an immediate cost to an industry and thus consumers for environmental safeguards or cleanup, is it outweighed by potential benefits to future consumers? If Americans here and now are clamoring for cheaper energy, does it make sense to unlock oil reserves that may result in environmental damage?

There always will be differences of opinion. What is troubling is that Mr. Bush has acted to cancel regulation after regulation and change one environmental policy after another without spelling out why or what his beliefs, philosophy, and rationale are.

Americans who want potentially dangerous levels of arsenic out of drinking water presumably deserve a statement from the President about why he thinks reducing arsenic is not warranted. The parents of small children living near a chemical plant might want to hear why it is in “national security interests” that they not get more information about the chemicals being produced near them.

Mr. Bush speaks regularly of how important it is to avoid underestimating the intelligence or will of the American people. But on environmental issues, he seems to be regularly ignoring their interest and underestimating their intelligence.

Ann McFeatters is chief of The Blade's national bureau. E-mail her at amcfeatters@nationalpress.com.



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