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The rape of the land

John Infranca | Thursday, November 13, 2003

During his presidential campaign, President George W. Bush declared himself a “conservationist” rather than an environmentalist. While for once his panache for linguistic inventiveness happened upon an actual word, his statement remained misleading. In the time since his election, Bush has done much to undermine environmental initiatives: increasing logging on public land, lowering emission standards and failing to investigate potential violations of the Clean Air Act. His decisions have repeatedly put the concerns of special interests and industry above public opinion and public health.This past week the attorneys general in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut instigated litigation to compel power plants in that region to decrease pollution. This followed the Bush Administration’s decision to abandon over 50 investigations of potential Clean Air Act violations. The Environmental Protection Agency’s new standards, which halted these investigations, are the product of industry complaints presented two years ago to Vice President Dick Cheney’s clandestine energy task force. While in the past the upgrading of power plants required improved pollution controls, the utility companies managed to compel Cheney to eliminate this rule for the sake of producing more power (and of course greater profit). In addition to dismissing their own litigation, the EPA’s new standards have also weakened the legal basis of the cases being pursued by the states. Unfortunately, this is only the most recent example of the Administration’s failure to take advantage of the federal government’s ability to protect the environment and the health of American citizens. President Bush’s decisions often pay little heed to either the conclusions of studies made by his own EPA or to public opinion. Consider the recent decision to reverse a Clinton Administration plan to phase out snowmobile usage in Yellowstone National Park. After conducting its own study, the Bush Administration’s EPA concluded that allowing snowmobiles in Yellowstone caused unnecessary pollution and disturbed wildlife. When the Interior Department asked for public opinion on the issue they received 360,000 responses and four out of five supported banning snowmobiles. In the end the administration not only decided to continue allowing their use, they even increased the number of snowmobiles that will be allowed. Disdain for public opinion on environmental policy appears to be a common practice for this administration. An even more glaring example can be found in the decision to open two million acres of land in Utah to exploration for gas and oil. The Bureau of Land Management received 25,200 comments opposing the project and less than 200 in supported. Nonetheless, the plan was approved anyway. Such lack of concern for the opinion of environmentally concerned citizens should not be surprising from a president who, according to a biographer, refers to environmentalists as “Green-green-lima-beans.” Many of these environmental policies are the product of Vice President Cheney’s Energy Task Force, a group that met shortly after the beginning of the Bush presidency to devise administration energy policy. Their meetings, which occurred behind closed doors, involved testimony from hundreds of individuals. Many were energy industry lobbyists and executives (including Enron’s Kenneth Lay) but few were environmentalists. This past September, for the fourth time, the courts rejected efforts by the Bush Administration to keep documents from those meetings secret. Nonetheless, the administration continues to seek ways to avoid releasing them. Earlier this year New York’s Republican Governor, George Pataki, announced a new standard that will require, within the next 10 years, that one-fourth of all electricity sold in New York come from renewable energy sources. In light of such bold action, what seems to be missing from President Bush’s administration are the political will to refuse the demands of the energy lobby that helped finance his election and the desire to show any interest in the opinions and health of concerned citizens. The result is an energy policy focused on production in the form of coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear energy, but which offers only distant hopes of more renewable energy sources and no incentives for energy conservation. Ironically enough, President Bush’s own Western White House (his private home in Crawford, Texas) boasts a geothermal heating and cooling system, a passive solar design and a cistern that collects water for irrigation use. These features do not simply conserve energy, they also save money. But they are features the average American cannot afford absent government initiatives directed at energy conservation and an increased commitment to renewable energy sources.Such initiatives are not part of this administration’s policies, nor will they be so long as our energy policy is formulated behind closed doors and absent respect for both the environment and public opinion. American citizens should demand their president show greater concern for the welfare of his citizens and the land they inhabit. So long as the energy industry’s donations fill this administration’s campaign coffers a change in policies seems unlikely. As much as it might soon be necessary, I would not hold your breath waiting for such a change.

John Infranca is a theology graduate student. His column appears every other Friday. He can be reached at [email protected] views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.