Criticism of the Bush administration’s environmental record has been both frequent and strident during its first two years in power. A recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) listed 164 examples of the administration’s “wholesale attack on environmental regulation,” all in 2002 alone. The New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times regularly tee off against the president on environmental matters — at least one hit piece per week has become the norm at these papers. The networks have practically worn out their file footage of belching smokestacks, spewing drainpipes and the like, which they use as visuals when discussing the administration’s environmental agenda. And the growing number of Democratic presidential hopefuls loudly disagree with the president on nearly every environmental move he has made or is considering.
With few exceptions, these attacks are factually flawed and motivated by partisanship and bias. The good news is that none of it need harm the Bush administration. The bad news is that the administration may allow it to.
The criticism began well before Bush took office. As soon as he emerged as the likely 2000 Republican nominee, the Sierra Club and other green groups launched an anti-Bush media campaign. Issue ads, press conferences and other events asserted that Texas’s environmental record was the worst in the nation. Houston, we were told, had dethroned Los Angeles as the nation’s smoggiest city. Texas also had more miles of polluted rivers, more unregulated power plants, more tons of toxic waste poisoning the children, and generally more of everything bad than any other state. And all of this was blamed on Governor Bush, the man who now wanted to do to the nation what he did to Texas.
Most of these assertions were false or misleading — try finding an air quality expert who really believes Houston is smoggier than L.A. or several other California cities. The few claims that were true largely predated Bush’s tenure as governor. Nonetheless, the press ate it up, constantly putting the Bush campaign on the environmental defensive.
The same critics did not give the new administration much of a honeymoon, either. Faced with a wave of Clinton environmental and public health regulations finalized in the weeks before the transition but scheduled to take effect afterwards, the incoming Bush team chose to take a second look at them. Several of these so-called “midnight regulations” were laudable-sounding but highly problematic, offering little actual benefit to justify the cost. Most notable was a stringent new Environmental Protection Agency standard for allowable arsenic levels in drinking water, from the current 50 parts per billion to 10 ppb, to take effect in 2006.
The attacks were over the top. Though these regulatory reviews would, at most, have simply restored the status quo during the Clinton administration, they were frequently described as “rollbacks” or even “gutting” of environmental and public health protections. The Democratic National Committee ran a satirical ad featuring a child saying “may I please have some more arsenic in my water, Mommy?” Environmental Defense called the existing arsenic standard “dangerously outdated,” and claimed that one in three Americans was at risk. The New York Times editorialized against Bush for allowing “poisoned drinking water.”
The DNC’s game is obvious, but the political bias of most environmental groups and many in the media also became evident. After all, if these new rules made so much sense that Bush deserved rebuke for reconsidering them, then why the relative eight-year silence while the Clinton administration dawdled on these matters?
The bad publicity became too much and Bush caved on arsenic. In fact, only a few of the 371 midnight regulations have been changed. The administration’s critics won the first round.
THESE EARLY ADMINISTRATION BATTLES established a pattern that has persisted. Activists would find fault with virtually every environmental measure coming out of the White House, often without regard to the facts or to positions taken during the Clinton years. The media would echo these claims as fact, and Democrats would grandstand on the putative environmental and public health threat.
Bush even gets slammed when he out-regulates Clinton, as he has done on snowmobiles. Though the Clinton administration had the legal authority to regulate snowmobile exhaust, it never got around to doing so. Last fall, the Bush EPA enacted the first-ever snowmobile emissions standards. As a reward, the NRDC now lists this rule as one of the administration’s environmental sins, assailing it as a “dramatically weaker rule than was necessary.” Environmental Defense and the Bluewater Network announced that “once again, the Bush administration is demonstrating utter contempt for the protecting the nation’s environment,” and launched a legal challenge to the snowmobile rule.
The media have proven just as tough, and just as inconsistent. The New York Times and Washington Post have editorialized against Bush over many perceived green wrongs, including his support for oil drilling in parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). But both papers share the distinction of having previously editorialized in favor of ANWR drilling. The facts surrounding ANWR — and other current environmental controversies — have not changed, only the political climate changed.
Democrats see the environment as one issue where they have a big edge over Republicans, and Bush’s 2004 challengers are already in campaign mode. When the administration recently announced its changes to the Clean Air Act’s New Source Review (NSR) program, each presidential hopeful took his turn on the stump. Sen. John Edwards (D-NC) said “this gift to polluters promises more smog, more soot, and more premature deaths,” all to be laid at the doorstep of a president who has “rolled back the Clean Air Act’s protections.” Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) called on EPA administrator Christie Whitman to resign over the matter. Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) was even less subtle, adding that “we don’t just need a new EPA administrator, we need a new president.”
As might be expected, the NSR reform package isn’t anti-environmental as claimed. NSR, one of several Clean Air Act programs that affect operations at industrial facilities, has evolved into something so complicated that regulated entities often have little idea when it applies and what it requires. NSR has also proven to be environmentally counterproductive, as plant operators have occasionally foregone facility upgrades that could increase efficiency and/or reduce emissions, just to steer clear of the program’s costly requirements. To its credit, the Clinton EPA recognized that NSR needed fixing and first proposed sweeping reforms in 1996. Despite the partisan hype, all Bush did was finalize the 1996 proposal.
Other environmental issues are being set up for the campaign. Joe Lieberman has co-sponsored a bill designed to fight the putative threat of global warming by limiting emissions from fossil fuels. Though it stands virtually no chance of passage, it will give the Senator the opportunity to distinguish himself from the President on the issue. So far, Bush has held the line against such costly measures, most notably his refusal to support the Kyoto Protocol, the multilateral treaty that sets targets and timetables for reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses.
Democrats and their allies may think they have a winning issue in the environment, but history shows otherwise. As bad as the attacks on Bush have been, they pale in comparison to those during Ronald Reagan’s first term. For the most part, Reagan stood firm against an overly aggressive federal role on the environment, and drew substantial fire for doing so. In fact, criticism of Reagan’s first EPA administrator and Secretary of the Interior — the two highest environmental positions in the federal government — forced both out of office. But politically, all of this cost Reagan nothing as he sailed to reelection in 1984.
The explanation is obvious. While most Americans describe themselves as environmentalists, few consider the environment to be a high priority issue. Recent Gallup polls show that, when people are asked to rank issues in terms of importance, the environment usually fails to crack the top ten. Unlike most green activists, the public understands that we are not facing anything even approaching an environmental crisis. Thus, there is no need to put the issue on the front burner, or to jeopardize economic growth with costly new measures.
THE LESSON FOR BUSH ON environmental policy is clear — do what you believe is right, and don’t sweat the inevitable and predictable criticisms. There is no way to appease the green left, and it is unnecessary to try.
Furthermore, Bush could actually accomplish more for the environment by jettisoning the tired command-and-control approach favored by the environmental old-guard, and replacing it with more innovative and promising solutions.
But there is also a cautionary lesson Bush could learn from his father. Rather than follow Reagan’s lead, the elder Bush intentionally drew attention to green causes by calling himself “the environmental president.” He even tried to win over the green establishment with gifts like the massive 1990 rewrite of the Clean Air Act. Of course, this tactic garnered little if any new support and did not help him at all in the 1992 elections. And, more than a decade later, these 1990 amendments have proven to be a mixed bag, at best.
So far, Bush has taken environmental policy cues from both Reagan and his father. His steadfast refusal to support the problematic Kyoto Protocol is pure Reagan. But administration hints that it may employ alternative measures in order to “do something” about global warming sounds more like Bush 1. The President’s Healthy Forests Initiative, announced in the State of the Union Address, is a bold step forward to protect federally owned forests from the devastating fires experienced in recent summers. But administration support of the enviro-nonsense in the energy plan — tax breaks and subsidies for wind and solar energy, alternative car research, ethanol mandates — smacks of playing “me too” with old ideas that won’t help the environment and don’t deserve taxpayer money.
It is not yet clear which style will dominate in the next two years. But the sooner this administration recognizes that it will be branded anti-environment no matter what and stops wasting time playing the green appeasement game, the better its prospects for both a second term and an improved environmental policy.