The Texas-born

Chainsaw-lovin' president's

environmental policy Massacre

November 02, 2003|By Gregg Mosson

THE BUSH administration's recent loosening of the Clean Air Act's oversight of upgraded old power plants came as no surprise.

But of greater consequence is the administration's across-the-board assault on pollution controls, environmental standards and land-use safeguards. And it is an agenda backed by the appointment of industry lawyers and lobbyists to nearly all key environmental protection posts.

While these appointments were reported when they were made in 2001, too often this engine that drives Mr. Bush's policy is overlooked in the news media when the president embarks on environmental campaign trips -- as he did in August -- that are intended to generate feel-good photo ops with photogenic natural backdrops.

They're worth reviewing at a time when Congress faces a range of decisions on environmental issues, from Mr. Bush's supposed Clear Skies air-quality initiative to the Healthy Forests initiative to a wide-ranging energy plan currently in House-Senate conference committee.

Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton -- who overseas the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and other conservation agencies -- once worked for the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which promotes commercialization of public lands, and also in the Reagan-era Interior Department, which trumpeted its pro-development, pro-corporate stance.

Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles -- before joining the Interior Department -- was the president of his own lobbying firm that catered to mining, utility and other resource companies.

Agriculture Deputy Undersecretary Mark Ray, who oversees the national forests, is a veteran timber industry lobbyist and a past president of the paper industry association, American Forest and Paper.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham received a pejorative 6 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters for his environmental record as a senator from Michigan. The top score is 100. In 2000, the league named Mr. Abraham one of the 12 most anti-environmental candidates running for all House or Senate seats.

And, of course, President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have worked for oil and oil resource companies.

The energy plan in the conference committee is a bill that would repeal the 1935 Public Utilities Holding Company Act, which permits federal oversight of Enron-like utility conglomerates. It is being rushed through Congress as an anodyne to the summer's power blackouts in the Northeast, though its genesis was the product of Mr. Cheney's energy task force three years ago.

The administration still wages a legal battle to hide task force memos, meeting notes and other records that would reveal this plan's gestation. But from records already released, it appears the plan was created in consultation with energy companies alone.

Loosening the regulation of energy giants seems dubious national policy considering that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has concluded that fraudulent behavior by energy companies exacerbated California's 2000-2001 energy crisis.

FERC is demanding that 60 energy companies justify as legal their behavior during the period of California's energy price inflation, which FERC says cost the state $1.8 billion -- including challenges to Dynegy, Duke Energy, Sempra Energy and Oklahoma-based Williams Cos. Reliant Resources already has settled FERC charges, and Williams has settled with California. Enron's former director of California trading operations, Timothy Belden, has pleaded guilty to wire fraud after being investigated in relation to the California energy crisis.

The California energy crisis, of course, raises the question of whether Maryland someday will experience similar price hikes once soon-to-be-deregulated energy giants start entering the Maryland energy market or if Maryland's statewide energy market is deregulated.

Mr. Bush's recent loosening of the Clean Air Act's oversight of upgraded old power plants will allow many utilities off the hook so they won't have to reduce their air pollution emissions. The former stricter standards were the basis of a barrage of federal enforcement lawsuits under the Clinton administration.

The problem with lobbyist-run government is that these officials work behind closed doors to loosen laws and regulations deemed too obscure for front-page news. Yet the news comes anyway in the form of taxpayer bailouts, degraded forests, smog and spiking consumer costs.

The trajectory of this administration's environmental and energy initiatives continues its silent march toward an industrial and commercial transformation of the American landscape, without safeguards for public health and the natural world, even though what is placed before the public are postcards and canned music from breathtaking vistas.

Gregg Mosson, a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, has conducted research focusing on federal environmental and forest policy.

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