Press Releases

'Clear Skies' Hits Storm Front

Today's Polarized Political Climate Threatens Bush Environmental Plan

Sep 23 2003

WASHINGTON -- When President George H.W. Bush proposed using market incentives to reduce air pollution in 1990, he joined forces with environmentalists and Democrats to win congressional approval. When President George W. Bush last week proposed to expand upon his father's idea, he confronted unified opposition from Democrats and every major environmental group. That opposition threatens to block enactment of what the current administration calls its Clear Skies initiative. More broadly, it represents a case study in the different governing style of the older and younger Messrs. Bush -- and the political polarization the current president engenders. The first President Bush projected a more moderate image and displayed greater willingness to find common ground with Democrats on issues such as the environment and taxes. The second, mindful of the political grief his father suffered as a result, has devoted far more attention to placating the right on those same issues. And he has been more than willing to accept flak from the political left in the process.
But resistance to the current president's approach is based on substance as well as style. Mr. Bush angered environmentalists early in his administration by backing away from a 2000 campaign pledge to regulate carbon-dioxide emissions, which scientists say is a significant contributor to global warming. He continues to do so with his Clear Skies proposal: The initiative would curb power-plant emissions of nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and mercury, while setting no caps on carbon-dioxide -- a bow to manufacturers, utilities and coal producers who consider those caps a threat to jobs in a sluggish economy. That stance aligns the ideologically conservative president both with blue-collar voters and with business leaders he values as important to his electoral base. While the President's father reached out to environmentalists and moderates to get results, those claiming middle ground in this feud say they haven't heard from the White House. "If they are reaching out, it has totally eluded me," says Sen. Thomas Carper, a moderate Democrat from Delaware. Mr. Carper has proposed a Clean Air Planning Act that goes further in some respects than Mr. Bush's proposal -- and has won support from some moderate Republicans, utility groups and academic experts on the environment. Like all proposed Clean Air legislation this year, Mr. Carper's plan would allow utilities to decide for themselves how to meet caps for these three pollutants. If a utility reduces emissions below the federal limit, then it would have an emission credit it could sell or use at another facility. But it has a shorter timetable than the president's plan for imposing caps, and includes carbon dioxide as a pollutant subject to limitation. Environmentalists are more drawn to a proposal by independent Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont, which offers the same emissions-trading system with tighter enforcement deadlines and continued pressure on power plants to clean up emissions when they expand or modernize. While the proposal by Mr. Carper falls somewhere between these two, he says the White House has displayed no interest in his proposal and has deliberately kept relevant data -- including a favorable Environmental Protection Agency assessment of his bill -- out of his hands. EPA officials dispute this characterization, saying studies he has requested are still in progress. Lobbyists for the White House Council on Environmental Quality say they have been open to discussion, but have received no calls from Mr. Carper or other Democrats. Meanwhile, Mr. Bush's plan has won support from coal companies and executives at coal-fired power plants, even as it has alienated environmentalists. And with coal-producing states critical to the president's 2004 prospects -- as they were in 2000 -- the White House isn't bending. The likely result is legislative stalemate. Even as Mr. Bush talked up his "common sense" amendments to the Clean Air Act in Michigan last week, the legislation was mired on Capitol Hill without backing from Democrats whose support is critical in a closely divided Senate. In the House, a bipartisan group last week introduced their own version of Mr. Carper's bill. Advocates across the political spectrum say the market-based approaches that the first President Bush inaugurated have worked. "This is the approach that has proved effective," says Denny Ellerman, a former coal-industry lobbyist who directs the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, citing gains made under the proposal advanced by the president's father. Mr. Ellerman hails both the administration and Carper approaches for avoiding "command and control" regulation that has made other environmental laws difficult to enforce. But the White House insists it won't join Mr. Carper by including some carbon dioxide limits. Doing so, they say, would complicate passage of relatively simple legislation that could provide substantive gains in fighting pollution. "Don't hold hostage real progress and health benefits from reducing smog, mercury and acid rain" to the continuing debate on carbon emissions, cautions James Connaughton, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Mr. Connaughton argues that carbon-dioxide regulation should be debated in the context of a coming vote on a broader proposal offered by Sens. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, that would establish an economy-wide cap on emission of carbon dioxide. Mr. Connaughton also cautions that limiting such emissions could disrupt the economy by encouraging power plants to switch from abundant coal to more-expensive natural gas. A similar warning comes from Republican Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio, where job losses have moved the Buckeye State up on the Democratic Party's 2004 target list. "If you stop burning coal and go to natural gas, you shut down manufacturing in my state and others," Mr. Voinovich says. He cites conversations with Ohio employers who say they would move offshore rather than pay higher costs. If true, that would cost jobs domestically while exporting air pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions. That is why the president's recent speeches have emphasized that his proposals are practical and consistent with job creation. "We can have a pro-growth agenda, a pro-job agenda and pro-environment agenda at the same time," he declared last week at a Michigan power plant. One prominent environmentalist calls the president's opposition to steps to curb global warming "absolutist," even though Mr. Bush rhetorically embraces environmental improvement. "They play a 'just-say-no game' with a highly publicized effort to appear to be getting legislation passed, but making no real effort to do so," says David Hawkins, a former EPA assistant administrator who works for the Natural Resources Defense Council. White House officials disagree, citing more than 20 of the administration's global-warming initiatives apart from the carbon-dioxide issue. Only one little-known environmental group was willing to stand alongside the president as he touted Clear Skies last week. The New York-based Adirondack Council says national environmental organizations are just as obstinate as the White House. For its apostasy in supporting Mr. Bush, the Council says, it has lost membership support from one environmental group and has been declared a "clean air villain" by another. "National environmental groups are intent on denying Bush a victory," says John Sheehan, spokesman for the Adirondack Council. Write to Tom Hamburger at tom.hamburger@wsj.com