THINKING GREEN OR THINKING GREENBACKS: President Bush's Environmental Policy

Thursday, January 30, 2003

During the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush said, "Prosperity will mean little if we leave future generations a world of polluted air, toxic lakes and rivers and vanished forests." So after two years in office, how has President Bush done as the chief steward of our nation's air, water, and land? Is the Bush environmental record the disaster that critics contend? Or has the administration just done a poor job of articulating its vision for new ways of caring for the environment?

Recorded on Thursday, January 30, 2003

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge, some fresh air on George Bush's environmental policies.

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation and the Starr Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, the environment and George W. Bush. Running for president, George Bush said, and I quote, "Prosperity will mean little if we leave future generations a world of polluted air, toxic lakes and rivers, and vanished forests." Now that President Bush has been in office a couple of years, what grade do his environmental policies deserve? Are they as bad as his critics contend? Could they possibly be as bad as his critics contend?

Joining us today, two guests. Terry Anderson is executive director of the Political Economy Research Center and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. Mark Hertsgaard is a journalist, author, and contributor to national public radio's Living on Earth.

Title: Promises, Promises

Peter Robinson: At a meeting with environmental advisors before becoming president, George W. Bush said, and I quote, "I will be the next president of the United States. When I finish my term, the air will be cleaner, the water will be cleaner, and the land will be better cared for." George Bush is halfway through his term, perhaps his first of two terms, what grade do you give him, Terry?

Terry Anderson: I give him an A if you measure it in terms of the land being better cared for, the air being cleaner and the water being cleaner, but a D for the way he has approached policies. I don't think he gets much credit for the fact that these things have happened.

Peter Robinson: The substance is good but the salesmanship is bad, is that what you're saying?

Terry Anderson: It's not just the salesmanship, but even the execution of policies has been bad.

Peter Robinson: Mark?

Mark Hertsgaard: I would agree on the D, but I would probably put it there for both categories. I think that they've done an astonishingly poor job of selling their philosophy. They have a very different philosophy than the Clinton Administration had and they've done a poor job of selling it, which is why they are in big political trouble.

Peter Robinson: Now you, Mark, have written, "Bush has compiled this odious record without even having an environmental policy as such." Explain what you mean by that.

Mark Hertsgaard: I think that basically Mr. Bush, his environmental record has been a result of policies that he's pursued in other fields--economics, military, and above all, energy. His energy plan, a big part of his first year in office, was essentially about expanding fossil fuel production and that naturally has a lot of environmental effects, but I don't think he was thinking about the environmental effects, nor Vice President Cheney, when they set that plan out. It was mainly about increasing energy production.

Peter Robinson: Okay, does that make sense to you?

Terry Anderson: I think that they have done a poor job of selling the ways in which the environment can be preserved and the way in which some of these effects of energy development can be mitigated.

Peter Robinson: You've written, "The president could lay out a positive agenda. Rather than simply giving the appearance of rolling back environmental regulations, he could take the environmental high ground and win over common sense environmentalists from both parties." How?

Terry Anderson: Perhaps the best example is what is called the Healthy Forests Initiative. And in the Healthy Forests Initiative the aim is to attempt to clean up some of the problems that have come from mismanagement of forests in recent years and in particular to clean up the urban wild land interface to help slow down some of the wildfires that we've had. That policy has been sold strictly on rolling back some regulations, and some of those regulations needed to be rolled back. But instead of trotting forward the better part of the policy, which are the long-term stewardship contacts--these are contracts that allow the federal government to enter into contracts with private companies that can now invest in using non-commercial fuel wood for boilers let's say. Those contracts make sense. They allow us to clean up what would otherwise be non-commercial wood, use it to produce energy, and in the process help bring back some health to this wild land urban interface, but the administration--most people wouldn't even know that was part of the policy.

Peter Robinson: Let's take a look at some of the main elements of Bush's environmental policy beginning with air.

Title: Sky Caps

Peter Robinson: Bush Administration has announced what it calls The Clear Skies Initiative. According to a White House fact sheet, the initiative will improve air quality using a proven market based approach--market based must appeal to you [Terry]--cutting the three worst pollutants--nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and mercury by seventy percent over fifteen years. I assume the last part appeals to you [Mark].

Mark Hertsgaard: Well, it would if it weren't a voluntary program and that is a lot of the Bush approach to this stuff. They want it to go in a direction that would be market mechanisms, and market mechanisms sometimes work great and could on the clear skies. We have a great example with what we did with sulfur dioxide in this country. Many environmentalists are against that, but it has worked. But why it worked is because the government didn't use just the carrot, but also the stick.

Peter Robinson: Just tell me what happened with sulfur dioxide, you're using that as an example of something that went well

Mark Hertsgaard: Sure, sulfur dioxide is basically produced during the production--during the burning of coal especially for power plants and that was one of the things that causes acid rain. And basically they set up a market mechanism to trade emission so that the companies who did a good job of lowering their emissions, could trade that right to those who hadn't done so well. And if you weren't doing so well with it, you could buy the right from others who had.

Peter Robinson: So if you control your own emissions, there's an income stream available to you?

Mark Hertsgaard: Precisely. And vice versa, if you don't you can choose to buy that from someone else and you use the powers of the marketplace which are immense to pursue that goal it only works because that goal is set by the government that says, you have got to bring it down from say ten to one by the year 2000. Now that's going to be where the rubber meets the road on the Clean Skies Initiative with the Bush Administration. Will it remain just voluntary and we sort of trust corporations to do the right thing or will there be some real teeth in making sure that they have to get down to that? If they do have that market mechanisms can work great.

Terry Anderson: The term for this today is cap and trade--we'll put a cap on the emissions, and then we'll allow people to trade to achieve the cap.

Peter Robinson: And the Clear Skies Initiative does not involve that?

Terry Anderson: Well, I consider it a cap and trade program--the trade part I like, the cap part I don't. I disagree with Mark in that I think that this program, voluntary or mandatory, is a program that establishes caps that are unnecessary for the places they're established. The Clear Skies Initiative is mainly focused at the Midwest where NOX, nitrous oxides, and sulfur oxides, are not a major problem any longer because of what Mark has described--these are places where we've cleaned up. The Clear Skies Initiative does not do anything for places like Los Angeles or Houston, which are clearly in bad shape with respect to the air.

Peter Robinson: What you're actually saying though is that the Bush Administration, which often is characterized as too close to big business, rolling back environmental regulations, is being to draconian in the cap that it's establishing, that's what you're arguing?

Terry Anderson: I think that's exactly the case.

Peter Robinson: I assume you're not going for that one?

Mark Hertsgaard: Everybody's welcome to their point of view.

Peter Robinson: Mark and Terry disagree about the Clear Skies Initiative, but what do they think of Bush's other air pollution policies?

Title: In the Air Tonight

Peter Robinson: Gregg Easterbrook, writing in The New Republic, you just mentioned urban areas, we move now to another aspect of clean air, "Bush's strict new diesel rules will spare many lives and reduce urban haze, in fact they represent the most important anti-air pollution advance in a decade." What's he talking about? The Bush Administration soon after taking office upheld a regulation that requires petroleum companies to remove most pollutants from diesel fuel, he should get an A for that.

Mark Hertsgaard: That is one of the things that, in fact I was doing another program like this recently and that's one of the things I pointed out that Bush has done well. There have been a number of things that the Bush Administration has done well; they've also backed up the Persistent Organic Pollutants Treaty. This is an administration that doesn't like very many international treaties, and yet they backed that which is going to eventually eliminate things like dioxin. So, it's not an entirely bad record.

Peter Robinson: But you called it odious.

Mark Hertsgaard: Because there's so much of the rest of it that is pretty odious. For example, right there, this spring, the Bush Administration is now saying, well let's leave in the air methyl bromides, which are one of the things that are destroying the ozone level. Let's give corporations a chance to keep those so that we can grow strawberries and have green golf courses, but we're going to have a lot more skin cancer as a result.

Peter Robinson: So far from being an expert, I didn't even know they promulgated these diesel fuel rules, but it sounds to me as though they're simply, what's the old term, command and control? They simply set limits and said you have to meet these limits. There's no cap and trade provision or free market provision in there, is there?

Terry Anderson: They were Clinton rules that were upheld and it was a case where the rules do make some sense and where I don't think there is a good cap and trade solution. I don't nor did those of us who met with candidate Bush suggest that markets would solve every problem. And this diesel issue is one where it's hard to determine how you would establish a cap and trade. So sometimes command and control works. Let me look at another example of a Clinton regulation that I suspect Mark and I will disagree on--the arsenic regulations in water. The Clinton Administration said we must lower the arsenic levels in water, in drinking water, and the Bush Administration came in, reviewed those rules, stayed them for a short period, and then said let's move forward with them. Those were bad rules from the start because they lower arsenic levels to just absurdly low standards. Now most of us think about arsenic and we imagine that somehow we're in an Agatha Christie movie and there's arsenic in our cup and we're going to die from it. The standards that are there are so strict that they are absurd. Let me give you an example--a river in Montana, the Madison River, flows out of Yellowstone Park, out of arsenic compliance. And the compliance says that you will have a higher incidence of cancer if, and only if, you eat one quarter pound of fish everyday of your life for seventy years and drink one liter of water every day of your life for seventy years. And then they say well because that gives you a higher incidence of cancer, we have to take these little towns and spend millions of dollars to clean up.

Peter Robinson: Where does the arsenic come from?

Terry Anderson: That arsenic comes out of Yellowstone Park's geysers. In a sense we're taking a natural river and making it unnatural.

Peter Robinson: We know the Clinton Administration delayed for all eight years imposing those tougher limits and then they imposed them in the last week before they left office. Bush Administration comes in and says wait a minute, none of this midnight promulgation of new regulations, we're going to look at this and then there was a human cry and, is it fair to say they just crumped to the political pressure, they caved in?

Terry Anderson: Mark is right in something that he said. I don't think that the administration has a clear policy. And so I think it one time says well, you know, we'll give in on arsenic and we'll look like we're environmentally friendly and then the next time they turn around and they promulgate something like this forest regulation where they make the environmental community mad and they don't put forward the kind of image that I think, not just as an image, but the kind of policies that could really convince the common sense American that they're doing some good for the environment.

Peter Robinson: Next topic, is Bush being unfairly attacked for his position on global warming?

Title: Kyoto Draggin'

Peter Robinson: After taking office, the president announces that the United States will not observe the Kyoto agreement. Now, once again, Gregg Easterbrook writing in The New Republic, "The president might plausibly have said I have decided to continue the Clinton-Gore approach to global warming since the previous administration took no binding action on Kyoto either. Clinton never submitted the Kyoto agreement to the Senate because he knew it stood no chance of ratification." Bush is doing nothing any worse than the Clinton Administration did. Mark?

Mark Hertsgaard: Quite so. I have been very critical of the Clinton Administration on global warming too. It is without question the most serious environmental issue facing the human species.

Peter Robinson: Stop there, do you agree with that statement?

Terry Anderson: No.

Peter Robinson: You don't. All right, well let's come back to that, but go ahead.

Mark Hertsgaard: Having traveled around the world doing reporting for a book in 2001, I was amazed, even as an environmental reporter, how often I heard after Mr. Bush said we're going to walk away from Kyoto, I heard in the streets of Europe both from ordinary people and you've read it in the press and the politicians, that was the single most criticized action that the Bush Administration took in its first year in office, walking away from Kyoto because the perception, rightly or wrongly, by people abroad is that the United States uses the most energy, we're 5% of the world's population, we use 25% of the energy and we won't…

Peter Robinson: To produce 25% of the world's economic output.

Mark Hertsgaard: Sure, but we will not do anything to restrict our production of greenhouse gas emissions.

Peter Robinson: He's just toured the world, the warming world, and come to the conclusion that global warming is without question the most serious environmental issue facing the human species and you say no.

Terry Anderson: I think that the jury is still out.

Peter Robinson: You mean the scientific evidence?

Terry Anderson: …I mean the scientific evidence on the extent to which global warming is occurring, and I don't deny that there's some warming, I just think that whether it's the most significant problem facing us is still out for…

Peter Robinson: On your review of the scientific evidence, do we know whether it's human caused warming or…

Terry Anderson: I am not a scientist and therefore I'm not going to make that proclamation.

Peter Robinson: But is it concern or you're not convinced?

Terry Anderson: I want to come back to the point of Kyoto.

Terry Anderson: Not only should we not have ratified Kyoto, we shouldn't have signed it and we ought to un-sign it and the problem with Kyoto is that even if all of Kyoto were implemented starting tomorrow, it would have no…

Peter Robinson: And Kyoto called for…

Terry Anderson: Called for major reductions in greenhouse gases, especially by the developed world. This I think the data are unequivocal on. If we implemented every bit of Kyoto tomorrow, started it and did everything it called for, we would reduce the amount of global warming, assuming that all the models are correct, even if we did everything, the amount of warming that we would get rid of would be so miniscule as to clearly not be worth the economic cost of doing so. It would reduce the amount of global warming by the year 2100 by one tenth of one degree. Now that is a trivial change given the cost.

Peter Robinson: But isn't the argument that we're facing an unpredictable outcome here that maybe it would only reduce it slightly, but it would certainly keep it from rocketing up quickly, isn't that the argument?

Terry Anderson: No, that's absolutely not the argument.

Mark Hertsgaard: No, well that's part of the argument, I think the best--Terry's absolutely right by the way, Kyoto will do very little, nowhere near enough to deal with what the scientists say we really need to do which is to reduce emissions by about sixty percent. Kyoto talks about a ten percent reduction, but the argument for Kyoto is that this begins to send an unmistakable message to corporations and countries around the world, this is the direction we're going and it's the first step towards bigger changes.

Peter Robinson: From the air, let's turn our attention to the land.

Title: Winning the Hearts and Mines

Peter Robinson: President Bush has proposed to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or ANWR. Easterbrook asserts that drilling in Prudhoe Bay has caused at most, minor damage to the environment. That is to say that the president's proposal to permit drilling in ANWR is quite reasonable.

Mark Hertsgaard: I think actually that the whole ANWR debate is something of a sideshow and it think it's interesting that President Bush is using it to throw red meat to his right-wing base. It's the environmental groups who are using it to raise a lot of money and to scare people, but the real prize is not up there, it's in the lower forty-eight and in the millions of acres, especially in the Rockies and elsewhere, where the Bush Administration wants to open lands, public lands, to drilling and mining, in particular national parks, national monument, presidential monument areas, that's the big prize. And this thing about Alaska is what's driving a lot of the media coverage in the political conversation in Washington, but over time it's going to be much more important what happens in the lower forty-eight.

Peter Robinson: Now you're predicting proposals or are these hard proposals…

Mark Hertsgaard: No, these are happening now and what's preventing them so far are court rulings. The environmentalists are suing and so far the courts are preventing the Bush Administration from trying to open these lands.

Peter Robinson: I'm perfectly willing to move from ANWR to the lower forty-eight, but first I'd like a judgment from you--his proposal to allow drilling in ANWR is fine?

Mark Hertsgaard: Personally I would be against that. I think that's one of the few remaining untouched wilderness areas and wilderness means wilderness.

Peter Robinson: Terry?

Terry Anderson: But it isn't wilderness and that's important to note. It is not a federally designated wilderness area and if you tried to get it designated as such, it would never happen and it's because people are about equally divided over how much more wilderness to add as federal wilderness. But put that aside, I think Mark is about right on what the ANWR debate is. It is not really a debate about is ANWR going to give us energy independence, though the president tried to sell it as that. He said, in the announcements, he said this is a jobs bill. There again shows how poor this administration has been at selling what it can sell. If it's a jobs bill, then it's nothing more than us against them--the Bush Administration, the oil companies against the environmental community. What the team of advisors proposed to the candidate Bush was that if you're going to push for ANWR, and it was clear then that he was going to, at least make the point that the revenues that come from that ought to be poured back into seeing to it that any environmental degradation is taken care of there and that any revenues that might be left be devoted to environmental kinds of things. Let's solve some endangered species problems…

Mark Hertsgaard: Terry, why do you think that has not been followed? Why was that advice not followed inside the government?

Mark Hertsgaard: I would suspect that it's because Cheney's not interested.

Terry Anderson: I think it's politics as usual in the Republican Party. I think we'd agree entirely on this.

Peter Robinson: They just don't care. They have an ear pitched to different political issues, but not to the environment.

Terry Anderson: I think that the politics is such that they're not going to win Mark's vote and they might lose oil company X's vote.

Peter Robinson: That is to say people to whom the environment is such an important issue, that they would cast a vote for president based on his environmental proposals or record are almost universally going to vote for the Democrat anyway. So there's no incentive for the Republican...

Mark Hertsgaard: I don't think that's true.

Terry Anderson: I think Mark's right, I don't think that's true, either.

Peter Robinson: You don't?

Terry Anderson: I think they're missing the swing voter. I think that ANWR could have been sold in a way that said we want to drill for some energy, we don't pretend that it's going to give us global independence, we don't pretend that it's going to be the end all to our energy problems, but it will generate some energy and we can do it right and you can point to lots of examples where we don't have to destroy it. But we also need to say if we're going to drill for these resources that are on public lands, that we reinvest the revenues from those resources in the things that get hurt in the process. And if we are hurting the environment, then put the money back in to restoring that which we have harmed.

Peter Robinson: Finally, let's turn from the Bush Administration to the environmental movement itself.

Title: Green Dazed and Confused?

Peter Robinson: Mark, you've written, "There is no reason the environmental movement has to be a marginal player in American politics. It commands significant resources, pubic credibility and intellectual capital." So why doesn't it have more power than it has?

Mark Hertsgaard: I think they do a very poor job of organizing themselves and like so many groups there is a lot of in-fighting, there's a lot of turf battling and egos. And I also think, and this gets to one of Terry's points, I think they don't think enough about the economy. I think they need an economic message instead of just a message about the cuddly wildlife that we're going to protect here, they need to talk to the American public. The American public basically believes in clean air and clean water. They want that protected but they are afraid of the economic cost of that, which is what gives an administration like Mr. Bush's a chance to play those games. And so to answer your question, I think that the environmental movement has to say here is a way for you to have environmental progress and economic progress. I take issue with something that Terry said that somehow doing the right thing on global warming would hurt our economy. In fact there's study after study that shows a dollar invested in energy efficiency and in renewable energy, produces two to ten times as many jobs as a dollar invested in oil.

Peter Robinson: What I want to know from you is as a free market environmentalist, do you simply have to write off what I suppose we could call the traditional environmental movement, the Sierra Club? Do you have to write them off or are they open to your arguments?

Terry Anderson: I think you write off most of the big environmental groups, especially if they have a zip code inside the beltway and this gets at what I would add to Mark's point. I think that not only do those environmental groups have to recognize that the economy is a part of the every day mindset of the American people, but they also need to start focusing more on what are their environmental goals and very specifically what are they, and are we achieving them? If we want clean air, are we getting it? And I think too much of the focus has not been on the end state.

Peter Robinson: It's been a theological dispute rather than a practical matter.

Terry Anderson: Very much so: "we want to make sure that the companies put technology into place to clean up their smoke stacks." And when the evidence suggests that there are better ways to do it with cap and trade for example, the environmentalists oppose it. People say to me, you believe in free markets, are you an environmentalist? I say look, I'm an environmentalist, I want cleaner air, I want cleaner water, I want the resources better cared for. I think market approaches will get us there a lot better, get us more of those things a lot faster. So cap and trade, the thing Mark and I have talked about. The Bush Administration gets an A+ for its recent cap and trade approach to water pollution by allowing companies, especially companies and municipalities to trade to achieve the water quality that we want in streams and going to farmers for example, and helping them clean up some of the nitrogen that's being dumped in. We're going get way cleaner water for way lower prices.

Peter Robinson: You agree with that?

Mark Hertsgaard: I think it can work as I said earlier, market mechanisms have a role, but I believe in a mixed economy--market mechanisms and government regulations.

Peter Robinson: It's television, I'm afraid so we have to come to the last question. I'm going to ask you for a couple of predictions. I'm going to repeat this quotation once again, George W. Bush, "When I finish my term, the air will be cleaner, the water will be cleaner, and the land will be better cared for." A decade from now, will the environment actually be better and will Bush have had anything to do with it? Mark?

Mark Hertsgaard: A decade from now I doubt that most environmental indices will be better off, there may be some that will be better off, I would be surprised if the Bush Administration can claim very much credit for that.

Peter Robinson: Terry?

Terry Anderson: I think that virtually every environmental index will be better. Some of them will go up less rapidly than they have because we've picked the low fruit and when you pick the low fruit and reach for higher, it's just harder to achieve. I think we'll have improvements all across the board, especially in the developed world in the United States.

Peter Robinson: Because of George W. Bush or because of trends taking place apart from him?

Terry Anderson: I think because of trends taking place apart from him. I think he can play a role if he'll change, if he'll first get a policy and in particular, if that policy will embrace markets, I think he can take some credit. If he continues what he's doing, I agree with Mark, no credit.

Peter Robinson: Terry Anderson, Mark Hertsgaard, thank you very much.

Peter Robinson: I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge, thanks for joining us.