Bush: the environmental record

There’s no longer even the pretense of even-handedness in the White House


Many of America’s great wilderness places can be credited to Republican president Teddy Roosevelt, who protected vast tracts of America’s landscape, establishing national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges from California to the Florida Keys.

When President George W. Bush promotes logging in the name of “forest health,” or claims that dams help salmon, it seems unlikely he’s thinking about that environmental legacy. Still, as a politician he has to appear somewhat interested in environmental protection, which is why in 2003 his political advisor, Karl Rove, claimed Bush was following Roosevelt’s environmentalist tradition.Bush: the environmental record — There's no longer even the pretense of even-handedness in the White House — REUTERS/Rick Wilking

The conservative base of the Republican Party tends to view George W. Bush not as a Teddy Roosevelt (despite his “unilateralist” foreign policy) and certainly not as his father’s son, but as the reincarnation of their hero, Ronald Reagan. A closer reading of history suggests he’s more like Warren G. Harding. Harding was an affable, not terribly bright politician chosen for office by “fifteen men in a smoke filled room.” His campaign slogan, “Back to normalcy,” reflected his tendency to mangle the English language. He’d meant to say “normality.”

As president, Harding fulfilled his pledge to cut the tax rate for the top brackets, though Americans making below $66,000 saw no tax relief. He filled his cabinet with old cronies and top industry officials. H.L. Mencken described it as “three highly intelligent men of self-interest, six jackasses, and one common crook.”

In 1921, Harding’s Interior Secretary Albert Fall secretly leased the navy’s Teapot Dome oil reserve in Wyoming in exchange for a $200,000 bribe. Told that something was amiss, Harding responded, “If Albert Fall isn’t an honest man, I’m not fit to be President of the United States.” Questioned about Karl Rove’s meeting with a company seeking federal favors while he still held its stock, Bush replied, “My level of confidence with Karl Rove has never been higher.”

Bush and many of his top advisors come out of the ranks of the oil, energy, timber, and mining industries that Teddy Roosevelt condemned as “the great special interests.” Others, like Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman, are veterans of the Wise Use movement whose radical agenda has now become White House policy.

Bush, his dad, his vice president, his secretary of commerce, and his national security advisor are all petroleum industry alumnae. Condoleezza Rice had an oil tanker named after her.

The story of the energy industry’s ascent to the White House is full of drama and irony, not least that the Wise Use movement, which has helped define George W.’s environmental agenda, is in large measure the product of western conservatives’ loathing of his father.

“He [Bush Sr.] had [Reagan’s] big shoes to fill and the truth is we had no access, so we were pissed,” recalls Wise Use Movement founder Ron Arnold. “Not greatly enamoured of him” is how Grant Gerber, Arnold’s early competitor on the anti-enviro Right, remembers it. Today Gerber is involved in the Elko, Nevada-based Jarbidge Shovel Brigade, a Wise Use cowboy posse that illegally reopened a Forest Service road closed to protect an endangered species of bull trout. That bit of fed-bashing didn’t prevent the new Bush administration from naming Demar Dahl, president of the Shovel Brigade, to a Department of Interior advisory panel on land use.

No forests, no fires
Midland, Texas, where Bush spent his formative years, could be thought of as his introduction to nature, a Lone Star Eden muchBush with former EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman — REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque like Yellowstone if you took away the bears, wolves, trees, mountains, lakes, rivers, and geysers.

Although George W. failed to make any money in oil, he worked in the industry, and did make $848,000 selling off his oil stock just before his former oil company went bankrupt. Texas oil money helped fund his campaigns for governor and president.

Bush surprised observers when, late in the 2000 presidential campaign, he appeared to outflank Gore on climate change. In September 2000, Bush pledged to reduce emissions of four pollutants including carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas generated by burning fossil fuels. It seemed an odd pledge for someone so identified with the fossil fuel industry. The oil and gas industry had by then contributed $33 million in the 2000 election cycle, with 80 percent of that going to the Republican cause. The mining, chemical, and timber industries threw in another $21 million for the GOP.

Within weeks of Bush’s taking office, California began to experience energy shortages and blackouts, the result of supply manipulations by Enron and other out-of-state companies. It was only after the feds reluctantly capped wholesale energy prices that the shortages went away.

In early 2001, Bush claimed the country was facing an energy supply crisis and established a White House task force under Vice President Dick Cheney to formulate an oil production plan. The task force was filled with “Bush Pioneers,” industry folks like Enron CEO (and Bush family friend) Ken Lay, who’d raised over $100,000 in individual contributions for Bush’s election campaign. FirstEnergy CEO Anthony Alexander was another “Pioneer” who met with Cheney to discuss energy policy. In 2004 the Bush reelection campaign supplemented the Pioneers with “Rangers” obliged to raise at least $250,000 each for a $200 million war chest.

Although the vice president’s office denied the General Accounting Office access to task force records, or even a list of participants, one corporate figure known to be behind the energy plan was Cheney himself. In 1999, as CEO of Halliburton, he’d been a member of the Petroleum Council, an advisory group to the Department of Energy. That year they issued a report calling for the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – among other wilderness areas of the West – to fossil fuel development, proposals incorporated into the White House plan.

The twenty-five-point Wise Use Agenda also calls for opening up the refuge to oil drilling, and for logging the Tongass National Forest of Alaska (which Bush allowed on December 23, 2003), and all other old-growth trees on public land. The Agenda also calls for gutting the Endangered Species Act, opening 70 million acres of wilderness to commercial development and motorized recreation, and handing management of national parks over to private firms.

When the Wise Use Agenda was issued in 1988, it was seen as an extractive industry wet dream, one that the first Bush White House would never have openly embraced. But while the hard Right distrusted the father, the son is seen as one of their own. And while the first Bush was rated as having a mixed record on the environment, the same cannot be said for his son.

In his 2004 State of the Union address, President Bush failed to mention the environment. In his 2003 State of the Union address, he called for investing in hydrogen-powered cars. After initial reluctance, the administration also implemented Clinton-era proposals to reduce both arsenic in drinking water and air pollution from diesel trucks. And it ordered General Electric to clean up PCB contaminants from the Hudson River.

Reporting on what the Bush administration has done for the environment not only makes for a succinct paragraph, but also avoids the tedious listing of ways in which the White House is rolling back a generation of environmental laws and opening public lands to development.

The Washington press corps liked to portray Bush’s first EPA administrator, Christie Todd Whitman, as the administration’s token environmentalist, due to her mistaken assumption that the president would stick to his campaign pledge to reduce CO2 emissions. But within two months of taking office, the president reneged on that pledge. Some of his defenders argued that he hadn’t understood what he was saying. He withdrew the US from the Kyoto Accord on Climate Change, signed by more than 160 nations.

Part of the credit for these reversals goes to Myron Ebell, a former Wise Use lobbyist who had moved on to the Competitive Enterprise Institute. From here he coordinated climate backlash campaigns, bombarding the White House with calls, faxes, and e-mails from the industry and the Right.

In the face of firm scientific consensus that climate change constitutes a clear and present danger, the president insisted there was still an “incomplete state of scientific knowledge of the causes of, and solutions to, global climate change.” He quoted discredited statistics from the Greening Earth Society, a front group created by the coal-powered Western Fuels Association that argues for the benefits of global warming, and ordered the National Academies of Science to review the state of the science. Their report concluded that human activities were “causing surface air temperature and subsurface ocean temperature to rise.”

In 2002 the EPA issued a similar report identifying how the US will experience dramatic changes in the coming decades from climate change.

“I read the report put out by the bureaucracy,” Bush told reporters at a press conference, assuring them he remained skeptical. His spokesman, Ari Fleischer, later admitted that the president hadn’t actually “read” the report.

When Whitman left the EPA in June 2003, anti-pollution enforcement there had dropped 40 percent. The Inspector General was investigating charges that the EPA overstated the purity of the nation’s drinking water in an upbeat “report card” on the state of the environment that also (under pressure from the White House) had dropped all reference to climate change’s impact on “human health and the environment.”

Whitman backed away from clean air standards she’d endorsed as governor of New Jersey, instead touting a White House “Clear Skies” initiative of market trading in airborne pollutants such as nitrous oxide and mercury. Clear Skies would do less to clean up the air than preexisting programs that the administration had gutted.

One of those programs, called New Source Review, required thousands of older coal-fired power plants, oil refineries, and industrial plants to install new “smoke-stack scrubbers” when they expanded production. In late 2003 the EPA announced they would no longer be required to install anti-pollution devices. The EPA next announced it would drop legal investigations of 10 utility companies that had previously violated the program. The air would be dirtier; industry would save billions.

Whitman was replaced by Governor Mike Leavitt of Utah, a states’ rights champion whose first major initiative as head of EPA was to propose that mercury emitted from coal-fired power plants be removed from the most stringent regulations under the Clean Air Act.

While Whitman proved herself a loyal trouper, it’s Interior Secretary Gale Norton who remains the president’s point woman in promoting “common-sense solutions to environmental policy” that function as a pretext for pillage.

When George W. Bush stood in front of a giant sequoia in California in May 2001 and spoke of “a new environmentalism for the 21st century” that would “protect the claims of nature while also protecting the legal rights of property owners,” Norton was by his side. A Wise Use veteran, Norton helped Bush through his environmental tutorial as a presidential candidate, arguing that free markets are the best way to achieve environmental goals.

Today Norton argues for opening the Arctic Refuge to drilling. She’s pursuing energy development, logging for “forest health,” and motorized recreation on public lands. She’s reversed a plan to ban snowmobiles from Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, and promoted a plan to “outsource” national park jobs to private firms.

Interior Secretary Glae Norton (right) and National Parks Service Director Fran Mainella talk to press following a meeting with George W. Bush at the White House, July 2, 2003. Norton and Mainella presented the president with a report on national parks. — REUTERS/Larry Downing

Norton was a staff attorney for James Watt’s Mountain States Legal Foundaton (MSLF), the “litigation arm of Wise Use.” She served on the advisory board of Defenders of Property Rights.

Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman also has her Wise Use connections, representing the SAMS (Sierra Nevada Access, Multiple-Use and Stewardship) Coalition: timber companies, off-road vehicle associations, and others opposed to a conservation plan for the Sierra Nevada. Veneman’s chief of staff, Dale Moore, is a former chief lobbyist for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a linchpin of Wise Use. Her undersecretary for natural resources and environment, overseeing the US Forest Service, is Mark Rey. Rey is the former Forest and Paper Association vice president who authored Congress’s 1995 infamous Salvage Rider, which suspended environmental laws to accelerate logging in the Pacific Northwest. Almost a decade later, Rey and his bosses are promoting the “Forest Health Initiative,” which would allow commercial logging companies to clear underbrush on national forest lands in order to reduce the risk of catastrophic fires, and compensate them by letting them log fire-resistant stands of healthy old-growth and second-growth trees. There’s a certain Wise Use logic at work here, of course: no forests, no forest fires. On December 3, 2003, President Bush signed “Healthy Forests” into law.

Something fishy at Interior
As attorney general of Colorado, Gale Norton argued that government should pay whenever environmental laws limit a developer’s profits. “We might even go so far as to recognize a homesteading right to pollute or to make noise in an area,” she wrote in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy.

In 1998, Norton became cochair of the Coalition of Republican Environmental Advocates. Dedicated to “free-market environmentalism,” CREA included auto, coal, mining, and developer lobbyists. Traditional Republican environmentalists like the late Senator John Chafee of Rhode Island and Sherwood Boehlert of New York refused to have anything to do with it.

In 1999, Norton became part of the team advising Bush on developing a conservative “environmentalism for the 21st century.” Working with her was David Koch of Koch Industries, which in 2000 paid a $35 million fine for oil pollution in six states, and Lynn Scarlett from the libertarian Reason Foundation of Los Angeles. Scarlett was also a senior fellow at Montana’s Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE), which lived up to its acronym by holding a series of all-expenses-paid property rights “seminars” for federal judges at a Montana dude ranch.

David Koch is a major funder of FREE. With his family’s $23 billion fossil-fuel fortune Koch also bankrolls a hornet’s nest of DC-based free-market think tanks, including the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), and Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE), which support the “new environmentalism” of deregulation.

Norton’s deputy secretary, Steve Griles, is a former coal, oil, and gas lobbyist and veteran of James Watt’s Interior Department. Despite signing agreements that he would not meet with his former clients, he repeatedly did, to discuss new rules that allow the dumping of coal-mining waste in Appalachian rivers, a massive coal-bed methane drilling project in Wyoming, and offshore drilling on the West Coast. This has led to an investigation by the Interior Department’s Inspector General. Also under conflict-of-interest investigation are Norton’s top lawyer (a former Cattlemen’s Beef Association official who lobbied for cheap grazing fees on Department of Interior lands) and her director of Bureau of Land Management (a former Utah official under Governor Mike Leavitt).

Ironically, Norton’s biggest controversy is an inherited one: the century-old accounting mess at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. American Indians claim the federal government squandered billions in oil, gas, and timber royalties from their lands and are suing to reclaim the money.

A scandal that has also angered California Indian tribes involves the death of some 35,000 spawning salmon on the lower Klamath River in 2002, attributed to low water flows after the Bureau of Reclamation diverted water north to Oregon farmers.

In the spring of 2001 thousands of farmers marched through the streets of Klamath Falls and illegally opened canal headgates to protest a federal decision cutting their irrigation water in order to protect the endangered shortnose and Lost River suckerfish and coho salmon.

The suckerfish, considered sacred by the Klamath Indians, quickly became the poster animal for anti-Endangered Species Act pundits. What few of those conservative critics promoting “suckerfish sandwiches” were willing to acknowledge was that the water crisis was precipitated by the worst drought to hit the Northwest in over a century, a drought likely linked to fossil fuel-driven climate change.

After the 2001 protests, Norton’s Bureau of Reclamation reversed course, slashing the river flow and returning much of the water to the irrigators, even though a report from a team of federal scientists warned that it would place the coho in serious jeopardy. Yet on March 29, 2002, Norton and Veneman attended a ceremony where the headgates were reopened to return water to the farmers. Six months later, California congressman Mike Thompson and a group of down-river protestors dumped 500 pounds of dead Klamath salmon on the front steps of the Department of the Interior, accusing Norton of a massive cover-up.

“Farmers vs. Fish” had become the motif in media coverage of the Klamath protests, despite a US Geological Survey (USGS) report that showed keeping the water in the river would generate 30 times more economic benefit from commercial and recreational fishing and other river uses than from irrigated farming.

Among the Wise Use factions who rallied to the Klamath fight were the Farm Bureau, Pacific Legal Foundation, Frontiers of Freedom, American Land Rights Association, Jarbidge Shovel Brigade, and former Idaho Representative Helen Chenoweth-Hage, who told the irrigators, “We’re in a war.”

But the Klamath water war would prove more a political conspiracy than a model of citizen action.

On July 30, 2003, Karl Rove attended a meeting of 50 top Interior Department managers where he talked about the Klamath, telling them the administration sided with agricultural interests. In 2000, Bush had lost Oregon by a few percentage points, and Rove thought it was winnable in 2004. Klamath farmers were in the eastern Republican part of the states, while downriver, California Indian tribes and commercial fishermen were all Democratic. And of course fish don’t vote.

In the late summer of 2003, with endangered suckerfish now showing up dead in the river, the Bureau of Reclamation warned Klamath farmers it might have to again curtail their irrigation allotments. Local Republican congressman Greg Walden made a series of angry phone calls, beginning with Karl Rove. Within hours, curtailment was dropped.

In the fall of 2001 Norton altered scientific data to make it appear that oil operations in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would not harm hundreds of thousands of migratory caribou, when her own Fish and Wildlife Service had given her data suggesting they would.

She also concluded that drilling the Arctic wouldn’t violate an international treaty that protects polar bears. The Fish and Wildlife Service, which has twice issued reports stating that drilling poses a threat to the bears, was directed “to correct these inconsistencies” (with Norton’s position).

Norton’s top aides actively monitor career staffers to ensure that scientific assessments don’t conflict with political goals. Morale among Interior field scientists is said to be falling faster than a wing-shot condor.

Climate hoaxes
Air pollution from snowmobilers and harassment of buffalo and other wildlife became so bad in Yellowstone National Park that the Park Service decided to phase out snowmobiling in the park by the winter of 2002.

But Norton’s Interior Department announced it would reassess the rule-making process, despite 360,000 e-mails and letters, 80 percent of which supported banning the machines.

In November 2002 the Bush administration proposed a cap of 1,100 snowmobiles a day, up from the present average of 815. At the same time, the Park Service concluded an internal report that found banning the machines was the best way to protect the park’s air quality and wildlife and the health of visitors and employees.

While mischief is being done, Congress has failed to act out its traditional role as watchdog of the executive branch. Instead White House energy projects moved into high gear after the 2002 elections that gave the Senate majority back to the Republican Party while maintaining their control of the house.

In the Senate the Environmental and Public Works Committee slipped from the hands of Jim Jeffords of Vermont (League of Conservation Voters rating 77 percent) into the grip of Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma (LCV rating 5 percent). Inhofe’s major 2002 campaign contributor was the oil and gas industry. Outraged by the suggestion that oil and gas could also be contributing to climate change, he delivered a speech arguing that there is “compelling evidence that catastrophic global warming is a hoax.”

Among the radical environmentalists promoting the “global warming hoax” is the US Navy. In the spring of 2001 the Office of Naval Research (ONR), the oceanographer of the navy, and the (civilian) Arctic Research Commission held a two-day symposium on “Naval Operations in an Ice-free Arctic.” ONR believes rapid melting of the ice cap could open Arctic summer sea-lanes by 2015.

Another climate impact is being felt by energy companies searching for oil on Alaska’s north slope. Under state rules they can use their heavy exploration equipment only when the tundra is frozen a foot thick with half a foot of snow on top of it.

In the 1970s, that covered 200 days a year. But Alaskan scientists say this cold season has shrunk to just over 100 days a year. The Energy Department has responded with a grant to study ways for the oil companies to work on tundra when it’s not frozen.

The White House energy plan did offer a billion dollars to develop renewable power sources, but only if the money came from revenues generated by drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

By 2004, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham was promoting hydrogen fuel-cell technology. While the Europeans envision hydrogen fuel-cell storage systems built on renewable energy sources like wind and solar, the Bush plan calls for the hydrogen to be generated by nuclear and coal-fired power plants.

By favoring their own outmoded energy industry, George Bush and Dick Cheney may be undermining America’s competitive position in the world.

Today European companies like Shell and BP are investing billions in new technologies. Shell believes that renewables will constitute a third of all new energy production by 2050, while BP’s CEO thinks that year will see 50 percent of global energy demand met by noncarbon renewables.

Even if there are short-term costs and dislocations associated with a rapid energy transition, every decade of delay is certain to increase those costs.

Dramatic climate impacts are already taking place from the Antarctic Peninsula to the coral reefs of Florida, Fiji, and Australia. As climate change alters and damages unique habitats and the species that depend on them, it becomes ever more important that we conserve and protect what’s left.

What Wise Users and Bush’s fund-raising Rangers fail to understand is that saving wilderness, whole and undivided, is really about saving ourselves. Only a radical reorganization of the way we see ourselves and our role in the natural world can help turn this backlash around.

We need to begin a rapid transition from oil and gas to renewables. We need to strengthen the Endangered Species Act. We need to establish global standards for the environment, labor, and human rights at least as strong as those for global trade and banking.

It’s the undermining of democracy in America by a lobbying and election finance system indistinguishable from brown-bag bribery that now poses the greatest environmental threat to our future. We live in a time when too many politicians and business leaders no longer fear being caught in a conflict of interest because they’ve moved beyond a sense of shame.

Between backlash anger and despair that says “Take what you can get while you can get it,” and the faith that we can still leave future generations a good life in a good land, lie only the understanding, the heart, and the will of the American people. It’s a thin reed of hope, but it’s worked so far.

Activist and investigative journalist David Helvarg is author of The War Against The Greens (Johnson Books, updated 2004), from which this article is excerpted. You can read more about what Dave is up to on page 42.

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