Tractor pull

May 19, 2004

ENVIRONMENTALISTS would generally concede they are not keen on compromise.

Is any pollution, despoliation or loss of nature's gifts acceptable? Greens don't like to split the difference between no damage and a lot, or even some.

So it was all the more impressive that the Bush administration was able to strike a compromise between environmental groups and industry representatives on tough new emission standards for diesel-burning monster vehicles, such as tractors, bulldozers, locomotives and barges.

And not at all surprising that greenies praising the deal could barely suppress their skepticism. So much of President Bush's environmental record is so bad, the diesel deal looks to them like an election-year diversion.

Perhaps it is. No matter. This example of productive cooperation should be applauded - with the hope that it can serve as a model for the future.

These first-ever standards for non-road vehicles will build on new rules for buses and trucks adopted near the end of the Clinton administration that are set to take effect in 2007.

They require refineries to produce a cleaner-burning diesel fuel with a lower percentage of soot-producing sulfur. Engine makers are also required to reduce diesel emissions by more than 90 percent.

Negotiators for the industries that will be required to make enormous investments to comply with the regulations agreed to the rules, partly in return for a phased schedule that won't take full effect until 2015.

Environmentalists supported the deal because cleaning the air of poisonous sulfur is expected to have a huge impact on public health, greatly reducing the number of premature deaths, heart attacks and asthma complications now attributed to diesel soot.

But the diesel rule by no means evens the balance sheet. In many areas of environmental regulation, the Bush administration has reversed course: Emission standards for coal-burning utilities and refineries have been eased, protections for roadless areas are under threat, greenhouse gases have been ignored, new public lands have been opened to drilling and mining, and Mr. Bush's promise to stop the deterioration of the national parks has not been kept - they remain starved of funds, and under threat of environmental destruction.

Christine Todd Whitman, Mr. Bush's first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, quit after a series of embarrassments, including White House editing of an EPA report to exclude references to global warming. She was no match for anti-regulatory zeal among many of Mr. Bush's staunchest supporters.

New Administrator Michael O. Leavitt's record so far has been mixed. But he prides himself on his ability as a negotiator and conciliator. Perhaps the diesel rule is a harbinger of a more positive approach to come.

No harm hoping.

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