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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The State of the Environment

Air Date: Week of

The environment was conspicuously absent from the President's State of the Union address. But Washington correspondent Jeff Young tells us Congress will address major environmental issues in the coming weeks, from energy and highways to toxic waste cleanup.


PRES. BUSH: America this evening is a nation called to great responsibilities, and we are rising to meet them. (fades under track)

CURWOOD: President Bush delivering his State of the u=Union address as lawmakers returned to the Capitol for the new session of Congress. Our Washington correspondent Jeff Young joins me now to tell us about environmental items to watch. Jeff, welcome.

YOUNG: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: Now, I was listening to the president for word on the state of our environment and I didn’t hear that much. What about you?

YOUNG: Well, we didn’t hear it because, for the most part, it wasn’t there. Bush aides say there just wasn’t room for it in a 55 minute speech. Democrats said, well, you know, he found room to talk about steroids and pro sports, so what gives? Florida Democrat Bob Graham concluded, "If I had Bush’s environmental record I wouldn’t want to talk about it either." The president did make this one brief but meaningful mention of energy policy.

PRES. BUSH: [APPLAUSE] Consumers and businesses need reliable supplies of energy to make our economy run. So I urge you to pass legislation to modernize our electricity system, promote conservation, and make America less dependent on foreign sources of energy. [APPLAUSE]

YOUNG: Now, the energy bill kind of ran out of steam last year when several conservative Republicans joined a filibuster because of the bill’s cost. And there was some talk that the president’s support might waver. But that line in the speech sent a message the White House is still willing to fight for this bill.

CURWOOD: And how is that fight shaping up? The bill’s supporters need what, just two more votes to break that filibuster? What are the odds of that happening?

YOUNG: Well, we’ll see. But if it takes too long to get those two votes, what we’ll also see is a lot of pressure to pull this bill apart and move its more popular items separately— say, for example, the tax credits for ethanol.

One unpopular item is the energy bill’s biggest stumbling block, and that’s the liability protection for companies that make MTBE—the gasoline additive that contaminates groundwater. The shield against lawsuits is very controversial but Republican House leaders insist on keeping it in there. And taking it out is the only way to get the bill passed, according to the Senate’s leading Democrat, Tom Daschle.

DASCHLE: I have said that I am quite positive that I could produce anywhere from four to six additional Democratic votes if they would take those provisions out. So I believe the ball is in their court. I’ve made the offer; there’s nothing else I’m able to do until they take the action.

YOUNG: Now, this is of course election year, and the energy bill is a political problem of sorts for Senator Daschle who’s in a tough reelection race. Here in Washington, most of his party hates this energy bill. But in South Dakota, his home state, farmers love it because it doubles the use of ethanol and they grow the corn that makes ethanol. So Daschle’s making sure that if energy fails, he’s not to blame.

CURWOOD: If people are surprised by the energy bill’s price tag, Jeff, they might have some real sticker shock when it comes to the transportation bill that’s coming up. I saw that there’s, what, 300 billion dollars proposed to build highways? And I’m thinking, with that much spent on new roads you’ve got to have some environmental impacts. What are the major concerns here?

YOUNG: It is expensive. Environmentalists think it’s too much money for roads and not enough for mass transit. The spending ratio is about four to one in favor of highways, and they’d like to see more money spent on things like light rails projects and bus lines.

They’re also worried about the bill’s so-called "streamlining" of environmental reviews in highway planning. That would relax some requirements for road builders to account for things like the extra air pollution from traffic. Now to some, that sounds more like steamrolling than streamlining.

But the big battle with transportation is going to be that cost, how to pay for it. It’s a big-ticket item, we’re in a time of deficits, and this bill will either mean another nickel a gallon in the gas tax, or more money coming out of general revenues.

And either way, this is where some environmentalists might pick up some unexpected allies—conservative Republicans who are very hawkish on the budget and fed up with these bloated spending bills. We saw this with the energy bill when it got costly, and I expect we’ll see it again in the transportation debate: conservatives and conservationists finding some common ground when it comes to money.

CURWOOD: Yeah, money, money, money. And look at Superfund. Now that doesn’t seem to have any money. This is the program that supposed to pay for cleaning up toxic waste sites. What’s going to happen there?

YOUNG: Well, it’s already falling short. A recent inspector general report found that funding shortfalls last year prevented action on 11 Superfund sites and caused changes in others. And these are some of the most polluted places in the country. Most people expect that the polluting companies should pay for that—that’s something called the “polluter pays” principle. But a Superfund fee from industry has expired, and President Bush shows no interest in bringing it back. Democrats like Barbara Boxer of California want to reestablish that fee and make President Bush pay a political price.

BOXER: American taxpayers should not have to carry this burden alone. Superfund Trust Fund is empty today, that is bad news for the people. We have to make sure the American people understand that this administration is the first one – the first one – to actively oppose a “polluter pay” principle.

YOUNG: Now, another toxins issue to watch for is an effort to rein in asbestos lawsuits. Asbestos, of course, is a carcinogen. Workers exposed to it have won some massive court settlements. And manufacturing and insurance companies want Congress to kind of bail them out here with a federal trust fund to pay for asbestos victims. Labor doesn’t like it so expect to see a big fight with some big guns here, all of them fighting just as-best-as they can, as I like to say.

CURWOOD: [Laughs] Okay, thanks for that update.

YOUNG: You’re welcome, Steve.

CURWOOD: Jeff Young is Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent.



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