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

Clinton's Environmental Options

Air Date: Week of

Living on Earth's Peter Thomson reports on the environmental issues awaiting President-elect Clinton and the political reality that may influence the fate of those issues.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

"The economy, stupid." The now-famous sign in Bill Clinton's campaign war room became the battle cry of his successful campaign, and so far it's the focus of his transition. But the anticipation of the first Democrat in the White House in 12 years has raised the hopes of many who have concerns that go beyond the pocketbook. Living on Earth's Peter Thomson is here to report that there's a wide gap between the hopes of environmental activists and the political realities that may lie ahead.

THOMSON: Environmentalists are trying to maintain a sense of realism as they look ahead to the Clinton presidency. They say they're fully aware of the President-elect's promise to focus on the economy "like a laser beam". And they're trying to let the president set his own agenda, and his own pace, on the environment. Still, they are excited about the prospects for the future.

ROBERTS: We have really, I think, very high hopes that a lot of the undone work during the last twelve years on the environment will now move, if maybe not to the front burner, then certainly on to the stove of this next administration.

THOMSON: That's Bill Roberts. He's the legislative director of the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington. The EDF, like a lot of other environmental groups, has a laundry list of issues which they hope the new president will pay more attention to than did his predecessors.

ROBERTS: And that list includes the President's, President-elect Clinton's call for a Forest Summit to discuss the old -growth forest in the Northwest and what should be done about that. That's supposed to occur quite early in the Administration. Also, he'll be taking a look at reforms to the Superfund cleanup program, which is a very expensive and important program to clean up the toxic waste sites around the country. Also, he's going to be called upon to evaluate the need for reform to the Endangered Species Act, which we take very, very seriously and potentially as a threatening change in the law. Clean Water Act and wetlands reform are high priorities for some folks in Congress that could dramatically undo some of the gains that we think are important to be made in wetlands protection.

THOMSON: Add to the list such items as new wilderness areas, and changes to the nation's hazardous waste law, known as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, or RCRA, and you've got a full plate of environmental issues awaiting the incoming president. With the Democrats controlling both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, some environmental lobbyists may well have reason for optimism on these issues. But the word out of some Republican circles is . . . "don't get your hopes up."

QUINN: I think some of the more difficult issues are going to languish over the next two years.

THOMSON: Pat Quinn knows environmental issues and the political landscape about as well as anyone in Washington. He's been the EPA's associate administrator for congressional and legislative affairs under Bill Reilly and George Bush. He says some of the most high-profile environmental issues may be going nowhere in the early part of the Clinton Administration.

QUINN: There's been a great deal of talk about Superfund reform. It is very, very difficult, it seems to me, to put a political consensus together on Superfund over the next two years. I suspect that bumps into the next Congress. In terms of RCRA, the law which governs transportation of solid and hazardous waste, the environmental community's agenda, which is costly regulation of industrial waste, oil and gas waste, mining waste, simply doesn't have a constituency on the Hill. Nor do I think it will find a constituency necessarily within this administration.

THOMSON: Even in areas where Clinton took a strong position in the campaign, Quinn says, there may be no substantial movement in the near future -- issues such as the wetlands debate.

QUINN: Bill Clinton has pledged during the campaign not to weaken the nation's wetlands laws. It seems to me there'll be a very interesting tension for the new President early on in his administration. One of his long-time political allies, one of his friends, is Senator John Breaux from Louisiana. Senator Breaux is the co-author of legislation that would rather dramatically weaken the nation's wetlands laws. So the President-elect will face a very tough set of decisions on wetlands early on, and I suspect that this will produce further gridlock on comprehensive wetlands reform.

THOMSON: If this sounds like a defeated partisan trying to douse the spirits of his jubilant opponents, well, Quinn says there are opportunities for some quick moves on environmental policy -- moves which Clinton would be wise to take advantage of.

QUINN: I guess there is some low-hanging fruit that we in the Bush Administration may have contributed to leaving these folks. And I suspect they will go ahead and pluck it. Among the things that they might take a look at doing early on are, for instance, reversals of some of our decisions on the Clean Air Act. In addition, it's possible that we'll see an executive order to deal with something like increased requirements for the Federal Government to buy fuel-efficient automobiles. It's possible that we'll see a recycled-products requirement for procurement by the Federal Government. It's also possible -- I know there's some discussion -- they might put out an executive order regarding greenhouse gas emissions, something where you'd set up a no-net increase of greenhouse gases as a goal and then evaluate a broad range of regulations for their contribution of greenhouse gases. That would be aggressive, but that might be something that they would take a hard look at.

THOMSON: Pat Quinn is the outgoing assistant EPA administrator for congressional and legislative affairs. Both he and Bill Roberts of the Environmental Defense Fund agree that the place to look for early signals on the environment will be Bill Clinton's economic package. They say there are plenty of opportunities for the President-elect to mix economic policy with environmental policy, particularly by making commitments to such things as water and sewer projects and mass transit.

CURWOOD: Peter, before you go, let me ask you -- what else could Bill Clinton quickly do on the environment?

THOMSON: Well, it's widely expected that Clinton will sign the biodiversity treaty which was signed by most of the nations of the world at the Rio Earth Summit last summer. President Bush refused to sign it, saying he had concerns about the intellectual property rights of US corporations. Bill Clinton doesn't seem to share those concerns and he'll probably do that. Also, Pat Quinn speculated that the President-elect may convene an international meeting on global warming in Washington, at which point the United States would probably join the Europeans in the position they held prior to Rio last summer, that being that the world should push to reduce global greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by the year 2000.

CURWOOD: You know, it sounds to me like Quinn is laying out a blueprint, setting the table for the Clinton Administration. What's up?

THOMSON: Well, obviously there's been a lot of talk in the last couple of years about Bill Reilly and others at the EPA chafing under the kind of restrictions put on them under the Bush presidency. I think post-election here we may be seeing a little of that coming more to the surface. Pat Quinn is a Republican political appointee, appointed under President Reagan. He doesn't sound like somebody who'd be extremely uncomfortable working for Bill Clinton and the Democrats.

CURWOOD: Okay, thank you very much. Living on Earth's Peter Thomson.



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