President working to refine his image

Bush takes care to avoid criticism on environment stance

January 13, 2002|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Look at President Bush's recent schedule, and he appears to be a leader laser-focused on protecting the environment.

He was in the Philadelphia area Friday, signing a bill to clean up contaminated industrial sites. Two days earlier, he signed an accord committing the government to restoring sensitive wetlands in the Florida Everglades.

"All of us have a responsibility to be the stewards of our land," Bush said in Pennsylvania. Those watching on CNN saw a banner headline on their screen telling them Bush was on an "Environmental Journey."

Critics see something else in Bush: a president intent on undoing environmental regulations who has become adept at hiding that goal by holding splashy events when the news is good and issuing decisions largely out of view when the news is bad.

In fact, they complain, over the past few weeks, with the public preoccupied by war, Bush has quietly reversed a number of environmental protections - from laws that restrict logging in forests to efforts to reintroduce grizzly bears to natural habitats.

White House aides say critics are selecting only the most objectionable cases and are ignoring progress the administration has made to protect the environment.

At the same time, say congressional and administration officials, there is some truth to the environmentalists' complaints. Bush has refined his effort to sell his environmental record to the public so as to avoid criticism, they say, playing up the positives with events like the one in Pennsylvania, while diverting attention from decisions with negative implications.

In the first months of his presidency, Bush was battered by critics for announcing a U.S. withdrawal from the Kyoto treaty on global warming, initially scrapping a Clinton administration plan to reduce arsenic in drinking water and breaking a campaign pledge to reduce power-plant emissions of carbon dioxide.

"They made some serious political mistakes in announcing environmental rollbacks without a full understanding of the political ramifications," said an aide to a Republican congressman who is considered pro-environment.

"Now, they've become more astute at discussing these kinds of issues," the aide said. He said Bush no longer talks about environmental concerns as if to "dismiss" them, but appears rather to be "creatively addressing them."

Revising Clean Air Act

A big test of Bush's approach could come soon with an expected announcement that the administration is revising the Clean Air Act to relax some regulations that force coal-fired power plants to reduce emissions when they undergo renovations.

The decision, which is under review at the Energy Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, has been delayed for months. Administration officials, hoping to avoid the public beatings they took on the earlier decisions, have grappled over how to announce the changes while averting a storm of criticism.

"There is a lot of strategizing and a political dynamic - and everything is in gridlock because there is a lot at stake," said an EPA official who requested anonymity. "Anything that the environmentalists are going to attack, [Bush] is smart to minimize his exposure."

The GOP congressional aide added: "If the administration takes a step that can credibly be viewed as weakening clean air protections, the political fallout, particularly in the Northeast, could be immense."

Domestic priorities

With the drumbeat of the war against terrorism fading somewhat, and with the White House and Congress beginning to focus on domestic priorities in an election year, Democrats and environmentalists are gearing up for battles with Bush.

They hope to alert the public to what they see as an environmental record that threatens the nation's air, water and public lands.

Bush's critics say they successfully portrayed him as pro-industry and anti-environment in the early days of his administration, and they hope to do the same this year.

But Bush's improved public presentation of his policies - coupled with his stratospheric approval ratings - could make it harder for the criticism to stick.

Opponents of the expected clean air decision have been crying foul, saying Bush is on the brink of one of the most significant environmental rollbacks in decades. Changes to the Clean Air Act, they warn, could hobble lawsuits filed by the EPA and nine Eastern states against Midwest coal plants accused of violating the law.

"It would tend to weaken our argument that this is serious," said J. Joseph Curran Jr., the attorney general for Maryland, one of the states that sued the coal plants.

Curran said in an interview that he was disappointed because the Bush administration had given energy companies access to the agencies that will rewrite the regulations that govern them.

"The administration is meeting with those who we're in court with and who are challenging our position," he said. "That doesn't help."

Power plant pollution

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