Environment

August 16, 1992|By Peter Honey

What sets George Bush apart from his presidential predecessor is that he promised to be "the environmental

president."

That Ronald Reagan never tried, matters naught. It is by his pledge that Mr. Bush will be judged, and by his pledge that inevitably he will be found wanting.

No one, though, can say he did nothing.

He put William Reilly, a career conservationist, rather than a lawyer or political crony, in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency.

He signed the most ambitious clean air act in history.

He boosted global forestry assistance, stopped ivory imports, initiated an international oil spill treaty, signed a hazardous waste convention and froze offshore oil drilling.

And after four years in office, he had little to show for it except ridicule at the Rio Earth Summit in Brazil -- firstly because he would not take the lead in international efforts to reduce 'N emission of greenhouse gases, and secondly because of his refusal to sign a global treaty aimed to conserve endangered species.

Yet few of the 170-odd countries that took part in the summit this summer can boast anything like the United States' expenditure on pollution control, which currently runs to about $130 billion a year, or 2 percent of gross domestic product, and is rising.

Environmental economist Paul Portney estimates that costs of the Clean Air Act, alone, may reach $29 billion to $36 billion a year when it is fully implemented by 2005.

But expenditure alone, analysts say, does not necessarily prove efficiency of pollution control.

For example, a recent study by the Rand Institute suggests that 88 cents of every dollar spent by insurers on Superfund cleanup goes toward legal fees and administrative costs, rather than the actual cleanup of toxic waste sites.

Meanwhile, EPA figures show that Americans generate twice as much hazardous waste today as they did a decade ago.

The issue of cost vs. safety has dominated the environmental debate during the Bush presidency, as it did throughout the 1980s. Mr. Bush's readiness to cut or reject environmental programs for reasons of cost -- either in terms of jobs or financial expenditure -- especially during the latter half of his term, often angered environmentalists.

For example, when he signed the Clean Air Act in 1990, Mr. Bush noted enthusiastically that it would cut air toxic emissions by 75 percent, halve sulfur dioxide fumes and reduce debilitating smog in cities across the nation. But since then, the White House's Office of Management and Budget has stymied several of the EPA's attempts to implement the act, on grounds that such implementation would be unduly restrictive to business.

Similarly, critics recall how the Bush White House appeared to sabotage the efforts by EPA chief Bill Reilly to negotiate an acceptable biodiversity treaty at the Earth Summit.

Lack of vision and commitment has been the most common refrain in the the environmentalists' criticism of the Bush administration.

They point, for example, to his support for an ambitious international reforestation program, while he has balked at making significant reductions in logging in old-growth forests in the United States.

While he declared a moratorium on offshore oil and gas drilling in environmentally sensitive areas, Mr. Bush has steadfastly promoted energy legislation to open the last of Alaska's untouched arctic wilderness to oil and gas exploration.

Few political analysts regard the environment as a key issue in this year's elections. But a May 1992 poll conducted by the Roper Organization for the Times Mirror company found that four out of five Americans consider themselves "active environmentalists" or "sympathetic to environmental concerns."

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