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

Update on the Hill

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood speaks with Greenwire publisher Dale Curtis to update what's going on with major environmental bills in Congress.


CURWOOD: The fate of Amtrak is only one of many environmental issues on the Congressional docket. Key elements of the GOP's Contract with America, for instance, could have significant environmental impact. Among the most contentious items are regulatory reform, property rights, and risk assessment. And there may be a major fight brewing over the Clean Air Act. Some leading Republicans want to modify or even repeal it, and they're getting support from drivers upset about new auto emissions tests and cleaner gasoline. Dale Curtis is publisher of the on-line environmental daily Greenwire, and a former environmental advisor in the Bush White House. He's also a regular analyst on Living on Earth. I asked him if he thinks the Republican move to repeal the Clean Air Act will succeed.

CURTIS: Not really, although it should be a fun show here in the next couple of months as they hold hearing after hearing, and they'll probably have a lot of angry citizens and so forth. People are complaining about a provision in the Clean Air Act which requires motorists to get their automobile emissions inspected. The Clean Air Act requires more stringent programs. And a dozen states have balked at that, said no, we're not going to do it. Delegations have been sent to Washington. Carol Browner has met with them and promised to be more flexible. There will be hearings and not only about this provision but others as well. But that is an incredibly complicated statute. It would be pretty remarkable if the wholesale repeal could move through the legislative process without being stopped by somebody.

CURWOOD: There were a number of predictions that moderate Republicans would side with Democrats when it came to environmental legislation. But so far, the votes that I've noticed have been pretty much along party lines. Do you think that environmental legislation is going to fall prey to partisanship?

CURTIS: Yes, unfortunately I think it will. There used to be a tradition of bipartisanship on environmental laws, but I think that's history for now. Basic factions are, you know, the hard-line conservative Republicans, predominantly from the South and the West, who want to roll back environmental regulations. Not protections, they would say, but just, you know, the process, make it less burdensome. You have the moderate Republicans who generally have worked well with Democrats to strengthen environmental laws. And of course you have the liberal Democrats who are just in a daze about all of this and cannot believe the speed with which it's happening.

CURWOOD: What do you see as the greatest changes coming in environmental law?

CURTIS: Just to give you the short list, there will be action on the Clean Water Act, on the Endangered Species Act, on the Superfund toxic clean-up law, on the Safe Drinking Water Act.

CURWOOD: There are a number of water subsidies and other subsidies that some people say are anti-environmental in their impact, and they certainly don't help balance the budget. What do you think are the odds of changes in those laws?

CURTIS: Yeah, well this goes back to what I call the Enviro-Cheapo Coalition. Consistently, there is a pattern where you can get enough pro-environment members of Congress and enough of the fiscal conservatives to vote together and vote against these subsidies for logging or for water projects out West. For some of the coal and nuclear power research. I'm just pretty willing to bet that some of those programs will be scaled back or eliminated altogether. Where that might come into play is a program called the Conservation Reserve and the Wetlands Reserve. These are both programs that pay farmers to set aside environmentally sensitive land, and there probably will be a real cat and dog fight over the level of funding for that. The Clinton Administration wants to increase it. And I'm sure conservatives will want to cut it or, you know, at a minimum hold it where it is.

CURWOOD: By the way, Dale, I wanted to ask you. The presidential campaign is starting to heat up. Everyone's eyes are turning towards New Hampshire. What if any environmental legislation that could be coming up might play into that campaign?

CURTIS: Mm. I don't think it's gotten much attention yet. It will be interesting to watch whether Clinton and the Democrats position themselves, though, as champions of environmental protection against the Republicans who they will charge want to weaken environmental protection. And I thought it was interesting. Senator Cochrane from Mississippi who's a Republican said look, this gives Clinton an opportunity to portray the Republicans as opponents of public health and safety in the environment, and that that could work well for Clinton in '96. So a lot of it depends on the President, but certainly there's at least one leading Republican who recognizes that threat. I personally think that it is an issue that either party can use to their benefit if they appeal to the public's general support for protecting the environment. And then the test is showing the voters that you've got the best way to do it. It's basically up for grabs right now. The whole terms of the environmental debate are changing.

CURWOOD: Thank you very much. Dale Curtis is publisher of Greenwire in Washington, DC. Thank you, sir.

CURTIS: No problem. Thank you.



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