Bushed Again

What Can We Expect in the Next Four Years?


mask of president bush
Reuters/Rick Wilking

The ink had barely dried on the tens of thousands of uncounted provisional ballots before the Bush administration started consolidating its power. In the wake of an election in which he received 51.02 percent of the popular vote, less than 31 percent of the electorate, Bush lost no time in declaring that his second term would be just like his first, only more so. Two days after the election, Bush told a crowd of reporters “I earned political capital in this campaign and I intend on spending it.” Another candidate might have looked at the results, concluded the country was deeply divided on at least the issues that had gained traction during the election, and committed to govern with that diversity of opinion in mind. But we’re talking about the same President who declared that God had installed him in the West Wing after he lost the popular vote: any man who would conflate Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia with God is unlikely to espouse moderation in kicking off the second half of his program.

Within days, the Cabinet resignations started to come in. The dolphin-deadly Secretary of Commerce Don Evans, who nearly succeeded in gutting the dolphin-safe tuna law, resigned, his move eclipsed in the press by the near-simultaneous notice given by Attorney General and human-rights lightning rod John Ashcroft. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, whose tenure was characterized by opposition to consumer protection measures such as Country of Origin Labeling, was next. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, who in 1999 sponsored a Senate proposal to eliminate the Department he then was tapped to lead, and whose steadfast support for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump was the closest thing he had to a success at the DOE, joined her, as did Rod “Teachers’ Unions Are Terrorists” Paige, Secretary of Education. Overshadowing all of that day’s crop of departures was that of Secretary of State Colin Powell, whose moderate reputation had been lost in the fraudulent rush to war in Iraq. Homeland Security czar Tom Ridge followed suit a couple weeks later.

Some, watching the exodus from the Cabinet, used phrases such as “rats from a sinking ship.” But a better, if darker, metaphor soon arose: The Night of the Long Knives, a reference to Hitler’s 1934 purge of the Brownshirts, which consolidated his hold on Nazi ideology. Out went Cabinet members who had theoretically held to some level of nuance or diversity of opinion, to be replaced by stalwart Bush loyalists. State will now be headed by Bush confidante and Chevron Oil doyenne Condoleezza Rice, who lacks even the tepid independent-mindedness of Powell. Ashcroft (likely ousted as an embarrassment rather than for anything approaching moderation) will be succeeded by Alberto Gonzalez, the notorious author of the Justice Department torture memo alleging that the Geneva Convention was “quaint and obsolete.” Less well known is the fact that Gonzalez is the builder of the wall of secrecy around the infamous Cheney Energy Policy meetings, which environmentalists have so far failed to breach in the courts. Abraham was likely eased out after reputedly differing with de facto energy czar Cheney on a number of issues. In short, those likely to express disagreement with the White House on any matter have been forced out, their roles filled by yes-men and loyalists.

And with the GOP having consolidated its hold on Congress, Bush started spending his alleged political capital almost immediately. A trial balloon was floated to reopen the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge issue. In 2003, the Senate voted 52–48 against drilling for oil in the fragile reserve. With three more Republicans in the Senate post-November, an ANWR drilling bill stands a better chance of succeeding. Bush has promised to sign any ANWR drilling bill that crosses his desk.

photo of a man wearing bush-cheney 04 stickers on his head and over his mouth
A Bush supporter at the GOP convention,
apparently oblivious to symbolism. Reuters photo.

Another indication of things to come was the rumored showdown in the Senate Appropriations Committee over renewed funding for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump. Bush asked Congress to give control over much Yucca Mountain funding to the Energy Department, and pushed for a rider to a 2005 energy spending bill that would grant Congress the authority to set safety standards for the dump. The rider would circumvent a recent ruling by the Federal Court of appeals that the EPA’s proposed standards for the dump were far too lax; the court ordered stricter, science-based safety measures to be enacted, which may well have killed the project. The moves to push for the dump were fought to a standstill by Nevada Senator Harry Reid, lately named Tom Daschle’s replacement as Senate Minority Leader. Reid, who is the top-ranking Dem on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee for energy and water, effectively postponed any discussion of the dump’s future until next year.

But the worst Republican threat to the environment in the weeks immediately after the election was likely the renewed move to gut the Endangered Species Act.

California Representative and Bush crony Richard Pombo’s opposition to endangered species protection is of long standing: he testified in the mid-1990s before the Senate Environment Committee that he had suffered significant financial damage due to his ranch’s being declared critical habitat for the San Joaquin kit fox. This was a lie: no critical habitat had then been declared anywhere in the world for the San Joaquin kit fox.

Critical habitat is the bête noire of anti-ESA conservatives, despite its being largely toothless as a species protection method. When land is designated as critical habitat for an endangered species, about 99 percent of affected owners are actually not affected in the slightest. Critical habitat designation of private land affects only those activities requiring federal funding, and then only if the activities pose a threat to the species in question.

What’s more, declaring an area Critical Habitat cannot be done legally without formal consideration of the economic impact of such a declaration.

Despite the drawbacks, Critical Habitat declarations do aid in species recovery. Endangered species with official Critical Habitat recover twice as fast, on average, as their counterparts for which no habitat has been declared.

Nonetheless, Critical Habitat designation is described by anti-environmental extremists, including Pombo, as unlawful seizure of land – as if federal subsidies for one’s bulldozer projects were a constitutional right in danger of erosion. Under pressure from developers, the farm lobby, timber interests, and other resource extractors, the Interior Department quietly stopped routinely declaring critical habitat for species on the endangered list some decades ago – even though habitat declarations are required by the Endangered Species Act.

Thus environmental organizations such as the Center for Biological Diversity and Earthjustice have sued the Interior Department numerous times to force the federal government to follow its own law. Much of the protection endangered species have under ESA comes as a result of such citizen lawsuits under the critical habitat provisions of ESA, especially since a 1997 decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in a case involving the California gnatcatcher, where the court ruled that Interior’s practice of letting designations slide was unlawful.

So, of course, the Bush administration is now pushing to bar private citizens – including nonprofits – from suing to force critical habitat declarations. Craig Thomas, Republican senator from Wyoming, said that Bush received such negative attention from environmentalists that Endangered Species Act “reform” was put on the back burner during his first administration. “Environmentalists were so tough on the president and vice president that I think they were resistant to jump in and do something,” Thomas told the Casper, Wyoming Star-Tribune. “As the president said, now he has earned a little political capital, and he’s prepared to spend some of it.”

In the new world of Republican terminology, “spending political capital” apparently means sneaking potentially unpopular legislation onto a funding bill, where opponents will find it difficult to vote against. Within days of the election, there were attempts to attach laws gutting ESA to the Omnibus Spending Bill. The bill, a morass of unrelated odds and ends tacked on by staffers and voted on largely unread, apparently made it through committee without ESA “reform” attached. Still further attempts to weaken the nation’s premier biodiversity law seem inevitable. Look for repeated attempts by Pombo, Thomas, and others to gut ESA in 2005.

One potentially disastrous amendment that did make it onto the Omnibus Spending Bill is a measure that would erode the states’ ability to protect their coastal resources. The provision says that federal authorities, rather than state environmental or coastal regulatory agencies, should have control over the siting and design of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) terminals. LNG, sometimes touted as an alternative to petroleum-based fuels, is an explosively hazardous and toxic material. Siting of coastal LNG dock facilities is a controversial environmental issue, especially in California, whose environmentalist-leaning Coastal Commission is apparently the prime target of the measure.

In the meantime, Representative Joe Barton, who heads the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, is pressing forward with plans to declaw the Clean Air Act, long a thorn in the paw of the energy industry, which, aside from passenger cars, is the largest emitter of airborne pollutants in the US. The first Bush term saw an historic weakening of the Clean Air Act in the form of the New Source Review law, which drastically lowered emissions requirements on upgraded aging power plants. Then there’s Bush’s so-called “Clear Skies” initiative, which would have significantly expanded pollution trading in mercury, sulfur dioxide, and other emissions from coal-fired power plants, leading to increased pollution in many communities in the vague hope that overall emissions would be lessened over time. Clear Skies was derailed by environmentalist opposition in the first term, but James Inhofe, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and a proponent of the original measure, has pledged to reintroduce it in 2005.

And then there’s the dreaded Energy Bill, brainchild of Vice President Dick Cheney’s secretive Energy Task Force. The Bush Energy Bill’s 52–48 defeat in 2003 was due in large part to public outrage over its inclusion of drilling in the ANWR. Since the election, energy industry representatives have started putting the pressure on Congress to get a renewed Energy Bill off the pad. Success is by no means assured. Tennessee Senator Bill Frist, a strong proponent of the 2003 Bill, saw much of his personal pork barrel from that bill filled when Tennessee Valley Authority funding measures were later included in an omnibus spending bill, and observers speculate he may not work as hard for a 2005 Energy Bill now. A provision to exempt the manufacturers of the gasoline additive MTBE from liability for their chemical’s massive pollution of groundwater may well prove as much of an obstacle as it did in 2003. Barton and Tom DeLay pushed for that year’s version of the exemption, which prompted a filibuster on the Senate floor.

Still, the Energy Bill has its partisans, notably New Mexico’s Senator Pete Domenici, who not coincidentally shepherded the federal LNG oversight provision through the omnibus spending bill process. Domenici, who could be reasonably described as the “Senator from Los Alamos” and chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, announced in November he would reintroduce the newest version of the Energy Bill as soon as the 109th Congress opens for business in 2005. Environmental activists seeking to forestall the increasing deregulation of the energy industry have a lot of work to do.

The GOP lost no time in declaring that the election was a warning to environmentalists – among others – that they were out of the mainstream. The maps showed a broad swath of red across the middle of the US, and this meant, we were told, that the vast majority of the nation agreed with the Bush platform: the “political capital” Bush now plans to spend.

In truth, the environment as an issue barely appeared during the course of the campaign, limited to one question in the final debate and a couple of stump speeches here and there. It is instructive to recall the candidates’ responses to the one environmental question posed during the debates. Kerry, logically enough, attacked Bush’s environmental record, pointing out for example that “If they just left the Clean Air Act all alone the way it is today, no change, the air would be cleaner than… if you pass the Clear Skies act. We’re going backwards.” Bush, for his part – other than criticizing Kyoto as costing American jobs – lauded his own efforts to protect the environment. | One was arguable, such as the Bush administration’s off-road diesel engine regulations. The rest were either meaningless gestures – such as the administration’s hydrogen initiative, which Bush described bizarrely as the “hydrogen-generated automobile” – or environmental destruction wrapped in a green-sounding shell, Clear Skies and Healthy Forests, and a clean coal initiative.

photo of men in suits sitting smiling together
Attorney General-designate Alberto Gonzales meets with Senator Patrick Leahy.
No word on whether Gonzales conveyed any messages from Vice President Cheney.
Reuters photo.

Bush himself felt he had to couch his most flagrantly anti-environmental policies in green-tinged rhetoric, arguing forcefully against the idea that the mainstream is opposed to environmental protection. If most voters really oppose environmental protection, why dress up your policies in Greenspeak?

In fact, as Greg Hanscom wrote in the November 22 High Country News, the election results show that support for environmental protection continues across the political spectrum, even in the so-called “red states.” Montana voters elected a new Democratic governor who supports alternative fuels, and defeated an attempt to make it easier for mining companies to run cyanide leaching operations. In county races in the Big Sky state, voters went for a number of green-leaning candidates and initiatives, including strict limitations on wastewater ponds from natural gas drilling, and support for conservation easements. Colorado voters approved an amendment requiring that 10 percent of the state’s electricity come from renewable sources by 2015.

Red-state voters face environmental threats ranging from hog farm effluent to mountaintop removal mining, coalbed methane well pollution to pesticide poisoning. Opinion on these and similar issues runs consistently in favor of environmental protection. If Kerry had not assiduously avoided statements on such crucial issues – in fact, if the Democratic process had not involved rejecting any candidate likely to take a consistent stand on anything other than not being Bush – the outcome of the 2004 election might have looked rather different. As it is, much of the threat the environment faces from the next four years of Bush will be made manifest in the very communities that voted for him. Building alliances among rural and urban activists isn’t just a strategy to win some election a few years down the road: it’s the linchpin of any attempt to undo the damage done to the planet by Bush’s second term. Destructive sniping by disappointed urban progressives doesn’t just grant Bush and Cheney a moral victory. It undermines our last best chance to protect the health of the planet.

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