Environmentalists fear the worst from Bush

New president's philosophy and appointments foreshadow easing of regulations

Friday, January 19, 2001


WASHINGTON -- Few groups have cheered louder, worked harder or opened their wallets wider for George W. Bush than mining, timber, oil and other resource industries.

Bush, after all, is one of them.

A former oilman from Texas, Bush has lived through the boom and bust cycles of the oil economy. He's faced the complexity of government regulation.

As president, those experiences will shape an approach to the environment that will be more friendly to business and rely more on self-policing to ensure that the water, air and soil remain clean.

In short, Bush's environmental view is the opposite of the philosophy embraced by President Clinton, who used tough enforcement and tight standards to achieve his environmental goals.

Bush favors opening federal lands to more oil and gas exploration, mining and logging. His approach to protecting the environment is built around voluntary compliance and financial incentives rather than sanctions and fines.

And he has surrounded himself with people of similar views. The most controversial is Gale Norton, a former Colorado attorney general nominated to be Interior secretary. Norton, who is bitterly opposed by environmental interests, is a vigorous advocate of opening up more federal land for exploration and use. She, like Bush, supports multiple uses of federal land. She, like Bush, also has been critical of President Clinton's environmental policies.

Resource industries contributed $6.6 million to Bush's presidential campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. They have high hopes for the Bush administration.

The difference between Bush and Clinton, according to one industry official, is the same as a warm, pleasant breeze compared to eight years of "Arctic gales" from the Clinton administration.

"Common sense prays for some relief," said Thomas Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a vocal critic of the Clinton administration's regulatory approach. The Bush administration, he said, "will not be so quick to regulate."

Bush, in an interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer last fall, said of Clinton: "This is a president who has virtually shut down the ability of a lot of people to use lands and I've been critical of that. I'm not critical of preserving some of the pristine land. I'm critical of the process where he unilaterally acts.

"Under my administration, we're not going to destroy an entire way of life in Eastern Oregon and Eastern Washington. My attitude is there can be a proper balance with the environment and with a way of life."

He has acknowledged a willingness to review, and potentially roll back, some of the steps Clinton took to protect the environment in the waning days of his administration.

"We've got lawyers looking at every single issue, every single opportunity" to reverse actions Clinton has taken that are counter to his own philosophy, Bush told The New York Times last week.

Among those issues: a ban on building new roads in 58 million acres of national forests; reducing the amount of pollution from trucks; and the creation of national monuments. He is also likely to look skeptically at new mining regulations issued in the final week of the Clinton administration that have been condemned by the industry.

But how much actually will change is an open question.

Bush's approach and the nomination of Norton have been taken as a declaration of war by environmentalists who fear he will open public lands to a host of destructive activities and offer few checks on polluters. Those fears were inflamed even more by Bush's repeated call for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil drilling and by Norton's selection to head an agency that handles the bulk of the public lands issues facing the federal government.

Bush's allies, said Daniel Weiss, political director for the Sierra Club, "are standing on public lands with oil derricks at the ready."

Norton's nomination, said Gregory Wetstone of the Natural Resources Defense Council, is "the first battle in what we fully expect to be a two-year war" over the environment.

"Gale Norton has devoted her life to undermining the mission of the agency she has been nominated to lead," he said. "Her nomination is a direct challenge to even the most basic land and wildlife stewardship, and a slap in the face to the overwhelming majority of Americans who favor protecting our endangered natural resources."

In her appearance yesterday before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Norton said, "President-elect Bush has proposals to build conservation partnerships -- to help states, local communities and private landowners to conserve wildlife habitat, watersheds and open spaces. . . . Working together, there is much we can do to promote conservation in the United States."

But that is exactly what worries environmental groups. Deferring to local wishes, especially in the West, means federal forests, grazing lands and other areas will be open to commercial use.

"Bush could hardly have chosen a more divisive group of people for key environmental posts," said Bill Arthur, Northwest regional director for the Sierra Club. "We need action from these federal agencies to protect clean water, clean up Puget Sound, recover endangered salmon and preserve our wild, national forest roadless areas. The Bush administration is already signaling they want to dismember these policies and protections."

But Bush's outlook, in fact, parallels the philosophy of many Western Republicans who have been chafing under the tight land-use requirements imposed by the Clinton administration. Much to the dismay of resource companies and some property owners, Clinton protected more land than any president since Theodore Roosevelt.

No matter what Bush does, said W. Henson Moore, president of the American Forest & Paper Association, "It couldn't be any worse" than Clinton.

Despite outward signs of better times for industry, resource company lobbyists are trying to dampen expectations. No matter how helpful Bush wants to be, the narrow majority in Congress as well as a sophisticated effort by environmental groups will make wholesale changes unlikely.

"Nobody is talking about relaxing environmental standards," said Moore, a former congressman from Louisiana who has made the American Forest & Paper Association a formidable force in Washington. "Environmental matters are the electric third rail that politicians don't want to touch."

Though he expects his members to get better treatment from the Bush administration, Moore is spending much of his time these days telling them that any change will be "incremental."

Few expect major changes in laws such as the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, Superfund or the Endangered Species Act. The politics surrounding those laws is far too toxic and the complexity of the issues too great for Congress to reach consensus.

Instead, industry lobbyists as well as environmentalists believe the Bush administration will move in much the same way Clinton did, changing policy through administrative action, federal rule-making and the courts.

That potential alarms environmentalists, who point to the Reagan administration and its frosty view toward stringent environmental rules. In those years, proposals were often derailed or gutted by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) which is responsible for evaluating all proposed regulations.

Under Clinton, "Environmental agencies took the lead in protecting the environment with little interference from OMB," the Sierra Club's Weiss said. Under Reagan, however, "OMB was an environmental chop shop."

Environmentalists also worry that the practice of attaching legislative policy "riders" to weaken environmental standards will become more frequent. That tactic usually failed, however, because Clinton and his veto power provided an effective backstop.

All of that worries environmentalists who fear that environmental protections will be slowly whittled away and stopping it will be difficult because it will come in small steps, making it hard to rouse public objections.

"It's easier to hit a bull's-eye that's big and bright red," said Courtney Cuff, legislative director for the environmental group Friends of the Earth. "We worry that there will be a lot more loopholes added for polluting industries."

"The two places that most concern me are the overt attack on ANWR, one of the world's and nation's greatest treasures. . . . The country isn't going to drill itself out of an energy crisis," the Sierra Club's Arthur said.

"The second concern is dismemberment of environmental policy through a thousand cuts, done at the bureaucratic level. You try to make policy in the darkness of agency processes."

"For a president who lost the popular vote and has no mandate, to go after America's environmental laws is something he does at his peril. He promised to govern from the middle (but) his appointments come from middle of the far right."

P-I reporter Charles Pope can be reached at 202-943-9229 or charliepope@seattle-pi.com