Friends in power pose new problem


February 20, 1993|By Peter Honey | Peter Honey,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- A "green" White House poses a dilemma for environmental activists accustomed to confrontation during 12 years of Republican rule they saw as hostile or uncommitted to their cause.

For the first time since the Carter presidency, top administration officials are consulting environmentalists of all stripes on questions of economic, domestic and even foreign policy.

Several were summoned to the White House in recent few weeks to give recommendations on environmental initiatives like the energy tax that President Clinton outlined in his first address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday -- granting them a level of access they never got during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

Groups such as the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council plan to campaign for public support of the energy taxes and anti-pollution initiatives they helped persuade the president to adopt.

But for Washington's hard-nosed environmental community the idea of a "partnership" with government takes some getting used to and will call for a change of tactics and strategies.

"There's a psychological shift taking place -- on both sides," says Alden Meyer, legislative director of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "People in this administration are trying to do the right thing, within the political constraints, and we're going to have to be a little more sophisticated."

Though other interest groups aligned with the Democrats face similar adjustments, environmentalists may feel more constrained to criticize an administration that includes Vice President Al Gore -- once the Senate's leading environmental champion.

The issue has sparked fervent debate within the environmental movement. How should you relate to a sympathetic president, a vice president you regard as one of your own and an administration increasingly speckled with your friends? And how should you react when these "friends" make the "wrong" decision?

"That's the central question right now," says Philip Sparks, co-director of the Communications Consortium, representing several energy policy groups. "I've been to at least 25 meetings [of environmentalists] since November where that question has been asked, and I've personally arranged three or four meetings that focused just on that topic."

While environmentalists have been generally supportive of Mr. Clinton's energy initiative, they make it clear that they regard it as no more than "a step in the right direction." They clearly want more, and say they will demand it if it is not forthcoming.

Nobody doubts that there will be disagreements between the government and environmentalists. Not even environmentalists can agree on everything, and some hot issues are coming up that are certain to prod the Clinton administration into compromises, particularly as it searches for ways to stimulate the economy and cut the deficit.

Likely points of contention include:

* The need to reconcile logging in the Pacific Northwest with the protection of virgin forests and endangered species like the spotted owl. Mr. Clinton plans to hold an environmental summit on the forests, and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has promised to strengthen the Endangered Species Act.

* Defining wetlands preservation while trying to encourage development. Mr. Clinton adheres to a "no net loss" of wetlands policy, but powerful advocates of development are at work in Congress.

* The reauthorization of laws governing hazardous waste and the Clean Water Act, which are certain to propel the administration into collisions with farmers and industrialists.

Mr. Clinton has already indicated his intention to tackle the difficult issue of the Superfund cleanup program when he referred recently to the multibillion-dollar program as a "disaster" and hinted at massive cuts in the fund.

A week earlier, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol M. Browner raised eyebrows in some environmental quarters when she signaled a willingness by the administration to consider relaxing a long-standing ban on traces of potentially cancer-causing pesticides in food.

These statements drew virtually no public response from environmental groups -- a further indication of their mood of restraint.

"We've had a 100 percent outside policy for 12 years," said the Communications Consortium's Mr. Sparks. "What we need now is an 'inside-outside' strategy: to continue to critique the administration yet do it in a way that doesn't undermine the overall thrust of what is generally good policy."

Some groups weaned on opposition politics, though, find it hard to take a softer approach.

Greenpeace, the most abrasive of the mainstream environmental groups, was surprised recently when new Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary -- a former utility executive -- asked the organization to send a delegation to discuss the pros and cons of nuclear power generation.

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