Bush seen as polluter, but Kerry's plan vague

Conservation: Despite advocates' strong feelings about Bush's record, environmental concerns have been all but invisible in the campaign.

2004 Election

THE ISSUE: Environment

October 17, 2004|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Bush hiked into the snowy Adirondack Mountains to mark Earth Day two years ago by helping to restore a trail, promoting a hands-on approach to managing the nation's natural resources.

"There have been thousands of man hours put into this area to make it work for the good of all, and that's important for people to realize," Bush said. The mountains of upstate New York, he added, are "also home to many -- a place to work, a sanctuary for visitors who come here to appreciate the peace and beauty."

Bush was making a point essential to his environmental stance -- that these natural resources should be enjoyed, not locked away. But his critics say that it is not hikers and vacationers his administration is inviting into the woods, it is timber, mining and oil companies eager to extract profits from public land.

Despite conservationists' strong feelings about Bush's record, environmental concerns have been all but invisible in the presidential campaign, elbowed aside by Iraq and terrorism.

The issue breaks overwhelmingly in Kerry's favor. A recent USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll, for example, showed voters preferred Kerry to Bush by 29 points on environmental issues.

The complaints about Bush go back to the first days of his administration when he pulled out of the Kyoto protocols on global warming and his vice president, Dick Cheney, refused to divulge the names of the people he consulted in writing an energy policy.

Conservationists say Bush's pattern is to grandstand with nicely named proposals. Some they denounce, like the Healthy Forests Initiative that gave timber companies more control over public land as a firefighting measure; some that are controversial, like the Clear Skies Initiative that allows energy companies to trade pollution credits instead of reducing emissions at older power plants; and some they approve of, like restricting pollution from off-road diesel engines.

But in the background, those critics charge, Bush is filling many key environmental posts with former energy industry officials who are re-writing the arcane details of environmental regulations. The critics paint the president as a former oil man beholden to the energy producers who bankrolled his campaigns, willing to let industry plunder resources for profit.

"President Bush has attacked virtually every major environmental law," said Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, "in a way that will set this country back 25 years."

Jim Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the president's chief environmental adviser, said that charges that he is too cozy with polluting industries and writing policies on their behalf are blatantly false.

"You've got these groups complaining about what others are asking us to do, and impugning their ideas to us," Connaughton said. "It's `we fear they'll do something terrible.' Then when we come out with the policy, you don't hear another word. Where does the complaining go?"

If there is one area on which Bush and Kerry differ most starkly, it is on the question of whether to open more public land to energy exploration. In less than four years, the White House has made millions of acres of federal land available to logging, drilling or mining. Bush says he is keeping his pledge to boost domestic energy supplies.

While Kerry's proposals are vague -- intentionally, so as not to lose voters in swing states such as West Virginia, where coal is an important economic issue -- the senator has vowed to clamp down on energy leases. Kerry says he would place royalties from drilling leases in a trust, to help fund research into cleaner energy.

But some analysts say despite harsh campaign rhetoric, the Bush White House and a Kerry White House would not differ dramatically in environmental management.

"Replacing the president would not initiate some Valhalla -- it would not be this new paradise for the environmental community," said George Gonzalez, a University of Miami political scientist who specializes in environmental policy.

According to Gonzalez, environmental groups have been justified in spewing venom over many of Bush's policy proposals. But, some of the ideas Bush has offered, he said, have been more about political showmanship that real policy change. To mobilize voters in Republican-leaning states, especially out West, he said, Bush must play up the "urban/rural divide" in environmental policy and offer symbolic gestures.

"He needs support from people who are suspicious of environmentalists," said Gonzalez, "and who see an urban elite who wants to tie up resources out West fighting against rural folks who live off the open land and just want to take advantage of their resources."

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