Two years have gone by since President Bush took office and promised cleaner air and water by the time he left office. At midterm, host Steve Curwood takes a look at the Bush Administration’s environmental record with journalist Mark Hertsgaard and the Department of Interior’s Lynn Scarlett.
CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. It’s midterm for the Bush White House and a natural time for us to assess the administration’s record on the environment.
Two years ago, the President promised that by the time he left office, the nation’s air and water would be cleaner and the ecosystem would be better off. In his latest State of the Union address, the President reiterated his strategy to reach those goals.
PRESIDENT BUSH: In this century, the greatest environmental progress will come about, not through endless lawsuits or command-and-control regulations, but through technology and innovation.
CURWOOD: Running, all-told, about three minutes and 20 seconds, Mr. Bush’s remarks on the environment were notable compared to his first State of the Union address, in which he only gave the environment a mention. Observers say the speech may be a signal that the environment is in store for a bigger play at the White House.
With me to talk about just how the president has lived up to this promise so far, and what lies ahead for the next two years, is journalist Mark Hertsgaard, whose critique of the administration’s environmental record appeared in The Nation magazine. Joining us is Lynn Scarlett, Assistant Secretary of Policy, Management and Budget for the Department of Interior.
And Lynn, we’ll start with you. In what ways has the president kept his environmental promises?
SCARLETT: Steve, the president has kept his promise in many, many, many ways. He committed before he was elected to taking care of our national parks. We were facing many billion dollars of backlog from neglect. We have committed hundreds of millions of dollars to restoring the parks, not only the facilities but natural resources. A lot of those dollars are going to fixing problems on streams, wastewater treatment facilities that were leaking and degrading the park areas.
In addition, of course, he talked about his Clear Skies Initiative. It’s an initiative that would reduce by 70 percent nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide and mercury omissions over the next ten years or so, 35 million ton reduction.
So, there you have on the natural resource side, and then on the pollution side, two major initiatives that show that environmental commitment.
CURWOOD: Mark, what’s your response to that?
HERTSGAARD: Well, I think the president has kept a number of his promises but they’d be different promises that I would cite. In particular, the president received, and the Republican National Committee received, 44 million dollars in contributions from the extractive industries in the year 2000 presidential campaign--the oil industry, the mining industry, the timber industry, chemical and electric utility industries. And we now see those former industries scattered throughout the Bush administration’s policy-making apparatus, and often making policy that affects their former industries. In particular, the administration has been hammered in the press pretty regularly about their policies on clean air.
They’ve essentially made voluntary a lot of these environmental initiatives, such as, they’ve excused the country’s dirtiest electric power plants from upgrading their pollution controls, made that voluntary. Stripping protection from 20 million acres of wetlands. And made in the national forests, made environmental impact statements optional. That kind of approach, which tends to rely on corporate good will and the idea that if we don’t over-regulate companies--as the president said in his State of the Union address, he’s against, what he calls, command-and-control regulations. The faith on the administration’s part is that corporations will do the right thing on their own.
CURWOOD: I’d like to turn now to energy. President Bush, when he gave the State of the Union address, specifically proposed 1.2 billion dollars for research into hydrogen technology. I infer from that he means fuel cell technology for vehicles. Lynn, what has he accomplished so far to promote cleaner cars?
SCARLETT: Steve, the president, in his State of the Union message, did talk about a major new technological investment to try and drive us to the next generation of clean vehicles. And that is very consistent with the overall vision of using innovation, incentives, working in partnership with Americans, both corporations and private citizens, to achieve results.
CURWOOD: Mark, what about this? 1.2 billion dollars--hey, that’s a piece of change for cars. How do you see this proposal fitting in with the president’s actions so far?
HERTSGAARD: Sure, hydrogen is a great thing. Clearly, the technology of the future. It’s very nice to see the Bush administration getting behind that. But today, right now, the cars on the road now, the Bush administration is doing little or nothing to increase the efficiency there. They’ve blocked significant increases in the fuel efficiency standards, along with Republicans in Congress. And instead, we’ve had a very tiny, tiny--I think it was 0.3 gallons--that are going to be reduced in terms of the efficiency for cars. Meanwhile, the administration is increasing the tax credits for people to buy SUVs.
CURWOOD: Mark, in the article you wrote for The Nation, you pointed to their policy on public lands. And essentially, you made it sound like you believe it’s a big giveaway to resource and energy extraction industries on the public land. Could you amplify?
HERTSGAARD: A lot of attention has been paid to the Bush administration’s desire to go drill up in Alaska, and it got the environmental groups very activated. I’m sure they raised a lot of money by waving around that threat, and it got Congress very animated, as well. But, the real big prize was elsewhere, and it’s almost to the point--I’ve heard some environmental strategists say, you know, that was a red herring up in Alaska. Get us focused on Alaska, and, meanwhile, the real prize is down there in the lower 48, the millions of acres of going into the Rockies and opening it up for oil and gas drilling and coal mining.
And, by the way, Steve, that includes drilling in national parks and some national monument areas. So far, those things have been stopped by lawsuits and by court cases. So, I think that is still playing out, literally, on the ground across the country.
On the so-called Healthy Forests Initiative, that was something that was crafted by a gentleman who worked as the vice president of the American Forest and Paper Association. And, not surprisingly, his proposal is let’s stop having environmental impact assessments for national forests, let’s make wildlife protection optional. I don’t know. I mean, I don't think that those are measures that if you asked the average American, do you think we should have an environmental impact assessment before we go cutting down timber in national forests--I think that’s a pretty popular mainstream idea with most Americans. So, that’s a real political risk, I think, that the administration is running.
SCARLETT: The Healthy Forests Initiative is actually, as its title suggests, about making forests healthier. I think the characterization of it is a little bit off-base. We had, last year, over 7 million acres burned. They burned--rather than the way natural, historic wildland fires burned, which typically burn just low across the ground and leave timber stands alive, or at least in a condition to regenerate. These are absolutely destroying the landscape.
Why this is occurring is because after a hundred years of management neglect, in some respects, we have forests that have densities of underbrush and very thin and scrawny trees that are 10 and more times historic levels. We utilized the scientific information that has been accumulated. In this case, we looked at over 3,000 different fuels treatment projects that have occurred over recent years across the nation, took those data and said, okay, let us use that information to be able to do additional like projects without duplicative paperwork and process and review.
So, this is about continuing to pay attention to impacts. And, where impacts conceivably will be high, we will continue to do environmental impact statements and the full sweep of protections that Mark refers to.
CURWOOD: We’re just about out of time. But before we go, let me ask you both, what grade would you give the president on his midterm environmental report card? Lynn?
SCARLETT: Steve, I’d give the president very good marks. I’d give him an A, right up at the top of the list. And I’d give him that A because, with his 45 billion dollar investment, it’s the highest ever given by a president towards environmental and natural resources protection.
I think the central challenge is, in fact, to get the message out that cooperative conservation--that partnerships--really is the pathway to progress for the future. And that we have a lot of those building blocks in place, the president investing enormous amounts of dollars and manpower and creativity to put those tools in place. People haven’t yet learned, and they haven’t yet heard the stories. Our biggest challenge is to tell those stories. To talk about the rancher that’s at the New Mexican border that’s preserving a grass bank, to talk about a rancher named Sid Goodlow that I recently wrote about who took on a very degraded piece of land and has absolutely done wonders restoring it.
Those are the stories we need to tell. That’s the challenge for the administration, saying we can do this together. And we’ve got to cut the umbilical cord in people’s minds that think that environmental progress simply equates one on one with, kind of, “have a regulation, have success.”
CURWOOD: Mark, how about it?
HERTSGAARD: Steve, I’m afraid I’d have to be a little bit more critical of the Bush administration, not being a spokesperson for them. If you look across the board, I think I would give the president a D, bordering on D minus. Because so many of the overriding challenges facing this country and, indeed, the world--we haven’t talked very much about the international aspects of this, but the United States is the 800-pound gorilla, especially on global warming, but on so many other issues. And we have shown zero leadership on that, and I think that will be looked back upon by history as a real dereliction of responsibility on the part of the United States. And I’m sorry to say that the Bush administration has not stepped up to the plate.
It’s not been a completely black record but it has been largely one that has been written of, by, and for, the polluting companies.
CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard is an environmental journalist and author of The Eagle’s Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World. Lynn Scarlett is Assistant Secretary of Policy, Management and Budget for the Department of Interior. Thank you both for taking this time with me today.
SCARLETT: My pleasure.
HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.
[MUSIC: Ry Cooder “La Luna En Tu Mirada” Mambo Sinuendo, Nonesuch (2003)]
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