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

Environmental News Roundup

Air Date: Week of

Living On Earth’s Washington observer Mark Hertsgaard briefs host Steve Curwood on the latest environmental news from Washington, D.C., including: new vehicle emissions standards, a courtroom defeat for the EPA, and anti-environmental riders in Congress.


CURWOOD: Here now to talk with us about the recent environmental news out of Washington is Living on Earth's Washington observer, Mark Hertsgaard. Hi there, Mark.


CURWOOD: Mark, there's been a lot of movement recently on the issue of emissions standards for personal vehicles, particularly light trucks and sport utility vehicles. The biggest news of late is the announcement from Ford Motor Company that as early as this fall, their pickup trucks and SUVs will be no more polluting than ordinary passenger cars. What do you make of this?

HERTSGAARD: I think that Ford has obviously seen what the German and Japanese companies already realize, which is that it pays to be seen as environmentally responsible. Essentially, what Ford is doing is beating the timetable that Carol Browner, the EPA Administrator, has already announced for cleaning up the smog emissions of the nation's automobile fleet. Ms. Browner has said that she wants all the cars in this country to be producing 89% less smog by the year 2004, 100% less by the year 2007, and that SUVs will be held to the same standards. And what Ford has decided with its recent announcement is that we're going to do that at Ford starting this year in the 2000 model year. What still remains to be seen, however, is whether Ford would do the same thing with its fuel efficiency. Whether it makes sport utility vehicles get as many miles a gallon as passenger cars. Then that would be a really significant advance in terms of air quality.

CURWOOD: They could market it as the guilt-free SUV.

HERTSGAARD: (Laughs) Well, we'll see.

CURWOOD: Now, we also have to consider whether or not agencies are going to be able to make rules to begin with. Can you walk us through this recent court case by the D.C. Court of Appeals, this ruling that blocks a whole set of Federal air quality regulations for smog and soot and ozone? What consequences will this have for Federal regulation of air quality?

HERTSGAARD: That court case, Steve, is extremely significant, and in fact the standards on passenger cars are just one of the areas that it could effect. EPA officials tell me, and environmentalists say it should not affect Ms. Browner's initiative in that area. Of course, the American Trucking Association, which brought the suit that was upheld recently, say yes it does. And industry in general is saying look, we have to revisit all of these questions. The basic finding of the court was that Congress did not properly delegate its authority in allowing the EPA to set those standards. In the case of this specific instance, it was standards about ground-level ozone and soot, basically the particulates that come out of our car and truck exhaust pipes. What's interesting about the case, is that the court did not hold that ozone is somehow not dangerous. It said that in fact it's very dangerous. Basically, it's much more of a constitutional argument, saying that EPA did not have the right to make those specific regulations without explaining them better. The reason this is important is that it essentially goes to the entire Constitutional basis of Federal regulatory branches. And this decision, taken to its logical extreme, would put many of the regulatory agencies out of business. It would essentially say that OSHA, food safety, you name it, cannot set these standards. That Congress has to do that.

CURWOOD: This is a pretty big deal. Is it likely to be upheld on appeal to the Supreme Court?

HERTSGAARD: It will certainly be appealed, and of course one can never predict what the court will do. However, it would seem certainly very plausible that it would be overturned. The reason being that this ruling essentially stands in the way of 50 years of legal precedent. The Supreme Court has been very clear on this, as recently as 1989. And essentially, it's what they call the Chevron Rule, in which the Court said, look, in today's complex society, it is simply impractical to expect the Congress to micro-manage the regulations that come out of all the Federal agencies. The average Congressperson cannot possibly decide whether ozone levels should be at 12 parts per million or 8 parts per million. That's what we pay our scientists and the EPA to do. So it seems very unlikely that this law will be sustained. But in the meantime, it does throw a monkey wrench into environmental regulation.

CURWOOD: Now, the other big story right now, of course, is the fate of the Emergency Spending Bills for Kosovo and for victims of Hurricane Mitch. There are some anti-environmental riders attached to these bills. And there was a time when President Clinton said he would automatically veto something like that, but recently he's changing his tune. What's at stake in these measures?

HERTSGAARD: There's three measures that are giving ire to the environmental community here in Washington. One has to do with oil and gas giveaways, and the other that really, really gets people going concerns mining laws. In fact, one of the activists at PIRG, the Public Interest Research Group, said that this -- she had a great line, that this is “legislative ambulance-chasing.” Big polluters are capitalizing on the suffering of people in Kosovo to get special favors. And what they point to there is the way that Senator Slade Gorton of Washington has introduced a rider that would essentially prevent the Department of Interior from enforcing the 1872 Mining Act. Now that might sound strange to some of your listeners who know what the 1872 Mining Act is, because that's one of the biggest giveaways here in Washington. It essentially allows mining companies to take minerals out of Federal lands in the West at the price of $2.50 an acre, which has been a bete noir to environmentalists for a very long time. The reason, though, that Slade Gorton and his backers in the mining industry don't like it, is that there's another part of that provision, which says that you only get 5 acres of waste site for your mine. That was fine in the 1870s, but with today's mining techniques it's not enough. So that's why the Department of Interior has tried to begin to enforce this, and this rider would prevent that.

CURWOOD: It's ironic, then, that the mining industry has said that they liked this legislation for so long, now would like to change it when it's being used to enforce the law against them.

HERTSGAARD: Hugely ironic. I mean, they've benefitted from this for a very long time, and one environmentalist told me this week, "Would you ever imagine that someone would try and weaken the 1872 Mining Act? It boggles the mind."

CURWOOD: Well, thanks, Mark, for joining us. Mark Hertsgaard is a journalist and author and is Living on Earth's Washington observer. We'll talk to you again soon, Mark.

HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.



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