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Bush and the Environment

A panel discusses President Bush's recent moves on global warming, carbon dioxide and arsenic.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    After barely more than 60 days in office, President Bush has placed a distinctive mark on U.S. environmental policy, rolling back campaign promises on clean air, reversing Clinton administration initiatives on drinking water, and promoting new oil exploration in previously protected regions. And now the White House is taking steps to have the U.S. withdraw its support for a landmark 1997 global warming agreement signed in Kyoto, Japan. Environmental Protection Administrator Christie Todd Whitman told reporters the president had "no interest in implementing it." White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was even more blunt.

  • ARI FLEISCHER:

    The president has been unequivocal: He does not support the Kyoto treaty. It exempts the developing nations around the world and it is not in the United States' economic best interest. The president has directed his cabinet secretaries to begin a review so we can, as a nation, address a serious problem, which is global warming.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    The White House is also pushing to increase domestic oil production by opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to drilling.

  • PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH:

    And you bet I want to open up a small part of Alaska, because when that field is online, it will produce a million barrels a day. Today, we import a million barrels from Saddam Hussein. I would rather that a million come from our own hemisphere, our own country.

  • SPENCER ABRAHAM:

    If we go in the direction of exploring there, we're talking about a huge reserve, potentially as much as 16 billion barrels. The United States Geological Survey says it's at least six billion barrels, and that's a huge infusion of new energy resources that would give us the ability to be more energy independent.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    The president is also moving to roll back rules that ban development on 60 million acres of national forest, lift new limits on the amounts of arsenic allowed in drinking water, and undo new cleanup regulations for federal surface mines. Environmentalists are also worried that Bush administration officials will revoke actions that designated large areas of land as protected national monuments.

  • GALE NORTON:

    The West was concerned about those decisions, in large part because there was no consultation with the people whose lives were most affected by land withdrawals by the Clinton administration.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Congressional Democrats and environmental activists have vowed to fight the new administration tooth and nail.

  • REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT:

    It is a weekly, and now daily, drumbeat of rollbacks, of hard-fought and hard-won progress to protect the air and the water and the wilderness and the environment of this country. This is the most alarming rollback in environmental efforts that we have ever seen.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    At a White House news conference today, President Bush defended his actions.

  • HELEN THOMAS:

    Mr. President, in the last few weeks, you have rolled back health and safety and environmental measures proposed by the last administration and other, previous administrations. This has been widely interpreted as a payback time to your corporate donors. Are they more important than the American people's health and safety, and what else do you plan to repeal?

  • PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH:

    Well, Helen, I told people pretty plainly that I was going to review all the last-minute decisions that my predecessor had made, and that is exactly what we're doing.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Mr. Bush also faces criticisms from foreign governments, notably Germany, for backing away from the Kyoto treaty.

  • PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH:

    We are now in an energy crisis. And that's why I decided to not have mandatory caps on CO2, because in order to meet those caps, our nation would have had to have had a lot of natural gas immediately flow into the system, which is impossible. We don't have the infrastructure able to move natural gas. We need to have an active exploration program. One of the big debates that's taking place in the Congress, or will take place in the Congress is whether or not we should be exploring for natural gas in Alaska — for example, in ANWR. I strongly think we should. We have an energy shortage. I look forward to explaining this today to the leader of Germany as to why I made the decision I made. We'll be working with Germany. We'll be working with our allies to reduce greenhouse gases, but I will not accept a plan that will harm our economy and hurt American workers.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    For more on President Bush's environmental policy, we're joined by two advocates from opposing sides of the environmental debate, Deb Callahan, president of the League of Conservation Voters. And Lynn Scarlett, president of the Reason Foundation, a public policy think tank based in Los Angeles, and two authors who write about environmental issues: Greg Easterbrook, a senior editor at the "New Republic" and author of "A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism," and Mark Hertsgaard, author of "Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future."

    Welcome to you all. Deb Callahan, what do you think of this decision to back out of the Kyoto treaty? Is this a big deal?

  • DEB CALLAHAN:

    It's unfortunate. It's a tremendous step back. However, over 160 nations have been working for many years to come to consensus, and we have reached some agreement that we need to reduce these climate-change gases. We need to find ways to do it in an economic fashion that won't hurt our economy. So we've seen a lot of steps forward in the world coming together to say, this is a problem that we need to address. And now today, in the last week, we've seen President Bush step back from a campaign pledge saying that he wanted to regulate carbon dioxide pollution, and then this week we see him pulling back from the Kyoto treaty. It is unilateralism in its worst form. I don't think that we're going to be able to get back to where we've come to at this moment in time for a very long time. So this is a terrible day for the environment.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Lynn Scarlett, terrible day for the environment?

  • LYNN SCARLETT:

    I don't think it's a terrible day for the environment. Quite the opposite. What we have here is the president stepping back and saying, we need to take a deep breath here. This was a treaty that left out two of the major players, that is, China and India. They were not going to be party to that. This is a time to say, gee, in a time when we have uncertainty about just exactly what all the dynamics are of climate, how is it that we can better have energy efficiency and other mechanisms? I think it's a time to take a deep breath and set us on track that perhaps would be better than Kyoto would have been.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Mark Hertsgaard, how do you see it? The president did say he wants to work with the allies to try to reduce global warming, just this wasn't the way he wants to do it.

  • MARK HERTSGAARD:

    Well, I think that's actually window-dressing. Mr. Bush has been pretty clear all along that he doesn't really believe in global warming very much, and that's not surprising. You know, he has spent literally his entire life in the oil business, and the oil business would be dramatically affected by any kind of meaningful move in this direction. And this idea that somehow we can't go along with Kyoto because it leaves out China and India reminds me a little bit of a friend of mine who was… spent the afternoon playing with his sons, five and three. And at the end of the play date, all the toys are all over the room and the five-year-old didn't want to clean them up. And he said, no, I'm not going to clean them up unless my little brother does it. And his father pointed out, well, but wait a minute, you're the one who made most of the mess and your brother is not as able to clean it up as you.

    That's a little bit like what the United States is saying now. We are responsible for most of the greenhouse gases that are already warming this planet to a terrifying degree, as many people, including the insurance industry recognize. And for us to try and say we're not going to do this because China and India are not going to carry an even load is tremendously irresponsible.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Greg Easterbrook, do you agree with that criticism, that without the… first of all, the U.S. is responsible for a great bulk of the global warming, but secondly, that without the U.S. in it, nothing will happen, despite what the president said?

  • GREG EASTERBROOK:

    Oh, I think that's clearly true. We started this problem more than any other nation, although China is about to pass us as the global warming leader, for whatever that distinction is worth. We do have… it's incumbent on us to take some action. It doesn't surprise me that Kyoto's failed and it doesn't worry me that much. The treaty itself was very unlikely ever to be ratified by the United States Senate. President Clinton himself wouldn't submit it because he knew it couldn't be ratified. It's also common in international affairs for complicated multilateral treaties to start out with a failure and then to be replaced with something that works. I think it's incumbent on the U.S. now to propose some better ideas, especially incumbent on President Bush.

    What we need is some sort of treaty mechanism that creates an economic incentive to cut greenhouse gases. The reason why it seems so daunting to cut them today is that no one has an economic incentive to find a way to control them. And the history of air pollution control is that at first ideas seem impossible because there are no incentives. Later they turn out to be cheaper than expected because people invent them. And we're in the position now where it's incumbent on the White House to show us a better and more realistic economic proposal, and I think the world would welcome it.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    What about, that Deb Callahan? I mean could we just see a better proposal come out of the Bush administration?

  • DEB CALLAHAN:

    Well, right now, my confidence level in seeing them move forward decisively, leading the world community and coming to an agreement and a new treaty on a fast timetable. I don't have a lot of optimism based on the back peddling we've seen from the campaign commitment. And I think the point that economic realities are driving us back and saying, wait, we should think about this more before we address this issue — it's not right. We've seen even major international corporations such as B.P. Amoco, Dupont, United Technologies, are independently taking their own CO2 emissions and reducing them. They have industry-wide plans to reduce this pollution. There was a report that recently came out from a UN panel that said, in order to meet the Kyoto targets that were set up under the treaty, the first 50 percent of those reductions would have actually resulted in a net economic gain, and we would have very easily been able to meet those targets under existing technologies. Kyoto wasn't as hard to meet as the administration was making it out to be. This is a mistake.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    All right, Lynn Scarlett, let's turn to Bush's overall environmental policy. How would you describe him in this area? There's been a lot of criticism, obviously for some of the steps he's taken. He's taken quite a few steps, given that he's only been in office two months.

  • LYNN SCARLETT:

    We've had a number of steps of course right in the first few weeks after his taking office. There were environmentalists cheering because he was talking about support for the diesel regulations that the Clinton administration had put forth. He championed or supported… or Christie Todd Whitman supported the Supreme Court's decision on the tighter air standards that were promulgated in 1997. Then of course there were the decisions about Kyoto more recently and then also the decision about arsenic to step back and think that one over again.

    I don't think that these immediate actions are the real place to look for what we can expect from Bush. I think really the better place to look lies in some of the statements both of Christie Todd Whitman and in Gale Norton and from Bush's actions in Texas. Though those were criticized, if you look at them, he really focused on incentives. He had a lot of programs, a land-owner incentive program which tried to bring ranchers in to be inspired to address endangered species problems and habitat restoration. This is the kind of thing over the long term that I think we'll see Bush look to when he gets off… respond to what was already on his… agenda and moves forward.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Mark Hertsgaard, what would you look at in trying to determine what the president's environmental policy is? Would you look at what he's done in the last two months or Texas? And what does it tell you?

  • MARK HERTSGAARD:

    Well, I think both. It's a little reminiscent, actually, of that scene in the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy wakes up and discovers she's not in Kansas anymore. I think someone needs to tell President Bush he's not in Texas anymore. You know, in Texas you may be able to get away with overtly rewarding the oil industry the way that Mr. Bush has with his plans to go into Alaska, with his retreat from the Kyoto accords and so forth. But he's now the president of the entire country, and he has to worry about how this is going to play out politically. And I think it's going to be very, very costly to him, not just because of the opposition of environmental groups, although they are promising to ratchet that up, but because the environment is a mom-and-apple pie issue.

    Two-thirds of Republican voters agree with the environmental movement. So I think he's going in a very perilous direction, and I'm afraid he's doing it because it pleases not only his friends in the oil industry and the corporate donors, but also the hard right extremist forces within the Republican party. One of the most extraordinary things in the recent coverage of this issue was in The Washington Post story a few days ago. Top GOP officials are saying, look, we think we can get away with these kinds of steps on the environment, unless, quote, "there is a catastrophe an a lot of people end up dead before the election," unquote, in November 2002. That is an irresponsible example of brinkmanship and disregard to the public good that I simply can't believe is not going to haunt Bush.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Greg Easterbrook, is that what you see when you look at this Bush White House and its environmental policy, a White House that's basically rewarding his biggest corporate donors? That's a charge that is made over and over again.

  • GREG EASTERBROOK:

    No, I don't see that Margaret and there's an enormous duel of exaggeration going on. In your opening piece you saw Richard Gephardt saying this, these were unprecedented rollbacks. The only actual rollback so far has been in the arsenic in the drinking water standard, which I think was a mistake in the Bush administration. The new standard was well scientifically supported. But in other areas, the diesel fuel standard, for example that Lynn referred to, has far more public health significance. It will benefit far more people, it will cost more, and will be offensive mainly to the petroleum industry, which is George Bush's natural constituency and yet he upheld it. I think if in the future he rolls back other rules, for instance, forest and wilderness preservation, then some of these charges will become fair. But so far his actions, there's only one that's really strongly objectionable.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    But then what do you see driving it? Do you see a philosophy, an approach? What's driving it?

  • GREG EASTERBROOK:

    Well, there's a tremendous expectation on the part of Democrats and environmental groups that this will be Bush's Achilles heel. His father made a tremendous political mistake in 1992 when he changed from pro-environment to anti-environmental – hurt him in the campaign. Newt Gingrich lost his mandate in 1995 in Congress by becoming anti-environmental. Opponents of the Bush administration see this as his Achilles heel. Given that… it is strange to me how poorly Republican strategists seem to understand this issue — they've walked right into this trap.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Deb Callahan, do you think the environmental movement can stop the president from doing some of the things you most object to? I mean so far, his poll numbers are unaffected. The Republicans control both Houses of Congress.

  • DEB CALLAHAN:

    I think you could say we have our work cut out for us right now. But the good news is, as was referred to earlier, this environmental issue, public health and safety protections, has the support of Republicans, Democrats and independents across the country. The public didn't elect this president to roll back arsenic in drinking water standards. The public didn't elect this president to allow oil and gas drilling and mining in our national parks. The public doesn't support drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and I think once the public comes to understand what sort of implications this Kyoto decision and other decisions have on the future of our environment in this country, there are going to be political ramifications.

    I personally believe, looking at the polling and from our experience at the League of Conservation Voters in electoral campaigns, believe that this is a very politically risky thing. And I think that we're going to see impacts in the mid term elections in 2002. I think that there will be a real referendum on these environmental rollbacks, and I have to really take issue with the notion that this isn't of historic impact. I mean we have seen 60, 65 days of this presidency, and amazing across-the-board cuts, rollbacks and delays of important environmental protections. It's been extraordinary.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    How do you see the politics of all this, Lynn Scarlett?

  • LYNN SCARLETT:

    Well, I would agree with Greg that this is not a president who is simply catering to industry, and I think the diesel rule is one point… one case in point. Clearly, something else was at work there. I think there was a public health concern. But I have to say that environment is important to the American public. There's some, you know, 85 percent of the Americans say, I am an environmentalist, I count myself among them. So this is a president I think that does have to begin to set forth an agenda where he is putting conservation measures on the table, where he is looking at some performance in environmental health and safety. But I think going to the arsenic rule, this is a president that is going to say, yes, we want performance, but we want to it to meet the test of science.

    And so let us take a deep breath here, let us look at these rules that were hastily promulgated at the end of the Clinton administration, examine some of the science behind them. If we think, on reflection, that they should stand, then we'll move forward. Otherwise we may promulgate new rules, but we're going to keep health and safety in mind. And I think he has to, by the way, in order to meet the needs of the American public.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    But just briefly, are you suggesting that politically in any event, they've handled this clumsily?

  • LYNN SCARLETT:

    I don't know that they've handled it clumsily. I think certainly Kyoto was awkward because there were some statements… throughout his campaign President Bush said, I oppose the Kyoto treaty. But then there was some discussion about carbon dioxide regulations, so that sent some mixed signals. In the end of course the president did stick with his original position. But that caused some awkwardness certainly.

  • DEB CALLAHAN:

    Margaret, can I just jump in for one quick moment? There is a fiction about the fact that these rules that we're seeing delayed were last-minute sort of not thought-through rules. In fact, if you look at the 60 million acres of roadless areas that are now being questioned, there was a 1.6-million-person comment made about the roadless rule. It was a record level of comments. There were 300 public hearings about that roadless rule. The arsenic in drinking water rule had a lot of public comment, a lot of science behind it. That's a fiction, and so that should not be what we're predicating these decisions on.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Is that right, Greg Easterbrook?

  • GREG EASTERBROOK:

    Clinton probably made tactical mistakes by issuing some of these regulations at the last minute to make them seem like midnight hour things. But the Forest Service studies and the arsenic studies and others were very extensive and went on for a long time, should have been issued sooner. But when you ask the political question, Margaret, a lot of this ultimately comes down to what voters are willing to face. Deb is correct to say that polls show that most people oppose exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but the same polls show that they want unlimited cheap gasoline and the right to buy unregulated SUVs. Something's got to give; you can't have all these things at once. And political leaders hate the idea of being the one to tell that message to the public. I think George Bush actually would be a good person to carry this message because of his oil background.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    All right, Mark Hertsgaard, I wanted to get back to you, but I'm afraid we're out of time. Thank you all four very much.

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