On Monday, former U.S. EPA administrator Christie Todd Whitman published an uncharacteristically opinionated commentary in the New York Times lamenting the Bush administration's disregard for moderate Republican viewpoints. Though gently worded, the Op-Ed stands as the closest thing Whitman has made to a confession that she abandoned her post over an ideological clash with her superiors -- not because of homesickness, as she claimed in her resignation letter. More important, Whitman identified the fault line of radicalism that has begun to rupture the GOP -- a growing chasm dividing moderate and right-wing Republicans over a broad range of issues, environmental policy chief among them.
"President Bush [is] arguably one of the more conservative presidents in recent history," Whitman writes. These days, under his administration, "many moderate Republicans feel ... less certain of their place in the party." Meanwhile, "many conservatives act as if they wish we moderates would just disappear." She goes on to chide the administration for appealing to an ever-smaller votership and alienating moderate voters. "We too often follow the advice of political consultants to appeal not to a majority of the electorate but only to the most motivated voters -- those with the most zealous, ideological beliefs." Whitman did not hesitate to fault Democrats and environmentalists for engaging in similarly exaggerated polemic for the same calculated political reasons, but implied that as the party in power, the GOP has more to lose than the Dems in alienating its majority.
Whitman is not alone in her concern over this rift between middle-of-the-road and far-right Republicans. A growing number of prominent party members -- including Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine -- have squared off against the Bush administration on its environmental policies, casting votes on issues ranging from the Bush energy plan and Superfund to global warming and CAFE standards that directly challenge the administration's pro-industry, anti-regulation attitude.
Many fear that the Republican Party as a whole might pay dearly for the Bush administration's radical approach to environmental issues. "The irony is that while the Bush administration's environmental policy is designed largely to strengthen their campaign strategy, it could do just the opposite," Chafee told Muckraker. "Look at a map of all the states Bush won in 2000 -- the red states are mining states, they are timber-producing states, they are ranching states, many of which have a very strong opposition to environmental laws. But that doesn't represent the interests of most of the swing states. And even the mentality in the traditionally Republican states is changing -- states like Idaho, where people are beginning to understand that there has to be a balance."
Chafee also cautioned Republicans to remember that Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader took more than 2 percent of the popular vote in the 2000 election; assuming those voters -- many of them rabid enviros -- go for the Democratic candidate this time around, Republicans will get even more of a run for their money.
Theodore Roosevelt IV -- great grandson and namesake of the president who is often hailed by environmentalists and Republicans alike as the godfather of conservation -- also voiced concerns that Bush's radical environmental policies could threaten his reelection in 2004. "If you look at the elections, between 40 and 45 percent of the people are Republicans and Democrats that vote consistently, but the swing vote is getting larger and larger," said Roosevelt. "We're losing out on that swing vote for a number of reasons -- one's the environment, another's the economy, and they're both interlinked. Bush's environmental policy undermines a sustainable economic program. It's brilliant short-term, but in the long term it won't work."
Martha Marks, president of Republicans for Environmental Protection, argues that the Bush administration has "totally blown it" on environmental issues. "All my life I never thought there was anything oxymoronic about being a Republican who supports the protection of the environment, but today that notion is derided as a joke," said Marks. "Most Republicans call themselves conservatives, but a true conservative must inherently conserve. "
Marks added that it's not just the moderate swing vote she's worried about; a substantial segment of her members are the devout Christians to whom Bush is trying to appeal. "We have a growing number of extremely religious men and women who are very dedicated to the Republican Party but who believe that government must help protect -- not destroy -- God's natural creation," she said. Like Whitman, even they are increasingly disenfranchised and alienated from the party leadership. "Many of our members feel that the Bush administration's approach to environmental policy doesn't just damage the common good, it's immoral," she said.
The White House Office of Management and Budget is the powerful watchdog agency responsible for screening each rule change that passes through federal agencies to ensure that its costs do not outweigh its advantages to the U.S. economy. Indeed, on President Bush's first day in office, the OMB manifested its wide reach by freezing more than 50 Clinton-era regulations -- at least a dozen of which were environmental -- on the grounds that their costs might prove unacceptable.
Now it seems that the Bush administration has confounded the office's mastery of economics with a mastery of science; it recently proposed that the OMB not only review the economic impact of rule changes, but also appoint its own experts to peer-review the scientific accuracy of any government-issued warnings related to public heath, safety and the environment. The absurdity of this notion was called out on Friday, when 20 former top agency officials delivered an outraged letter to the OMB asking the office to withdraw its proposal, saying it "could damage the federal system for protecting public health and the environment."
Wesley Warren, one of the signatories and a former senior official in the Clinton administration's OMB, explained it this way: "This proposal puts the OMB into the position of a kind of super-science supervisor -- and yet the agency is completely lacking in the personnel, expertise, and knowledge necessary to be that sort of judge and jury. This would essentially allow them to second-guess all the science coming out of all the federal agencies. Think about how many science disciplines there are in the government, and how many specialties within that science! There's no way that from one central office they can replicate the scientific understanding and mastery of the issues that the expert federal agencies can. It's an extraordinary act of hubris on their part to presume [as much]."
According to Warren, the motivation for this proposed rule is, of course, economics. You don't need to look past the recent example of the mad cow debacle, which plunged cattle markets into despair, to understand the kind of economic ripple effect that can come out of a national public-health warning. And you don't need to look past the example of the EPA's ground zero air-quality coverup to recognize that the Bush administration is willing to soften or even conceal important public health information in order to avoid public panic.
What's most concerning about this situation, according to David Michaels, another signatory and a former assistant secretary for environment, safety, and health at the Department of Energy, is the vastness of the domain of information that the OMB would oversee. "It would control any information disseminated by any public official related to public health and security," he said. "The EPA will likely be the agency most affected [by the OMB peer reviews], but the proposal was written in such a way -- so broadly -- that it could even force statements by Alan Greenspan to be reviewed by OMB-appointed authorities before they go public."
Furthermore, OMB has proposed clear stipulations about which scientists would be qualified to do their peer reviews. "They say that no scientist who has ever received funding from an agency is qualified to perform a peer review," said Sean Moulton, senior information policy analyst at the D.C.-based organization OMB Watch. But a high proportion of academic experts have received research grants from government, so this stipulation essentially narrows the pool down to industry scientists who have never needed to apply for government funding.
Not much flexing of the imagination is needed to come up with scenarios in which OMB-controlled scientific reviews might interfere with the release of important environmental and public-health information. "The list is endless," according to Moulton. "And climate change is at the top of it. Any studies or announcements related to global warming would obviously be at risk given that the Bush administration generally does not consider this phenomenon as a scientific fact."
The Bush administration has also questioned the scientific facts underlying dozens of other hot-button public-health issues: the effects of endocrine disruptors on the human hormonal system, for instance, and the effects of particulate matter on the lungs. Administration officials have also questioned the levels of dioxin, mercury and arsenic that are hazardous in the human body. They've even questioned the public-health benefits of fuel-economy standards, arguing that the health costs of auto emissions are outweighed by mortalities caused by collisions in lighter, smaller cars.
Questioning scientific foundations is reasonable, of course, but creating a federal mechanism to delay the release of breaking scientific information would have environmental and public-health costs that America simply can't afford.
Lucky SEER 13
While the Bush administration is making efforts to ramp up the OMB's authority, a D.C. circuit court judgment on Tuesday cut it down to size. The court overruled the agency's effort to weaken one of the very Clinton-era rules it froze on Day 1 of the Bush administration. The rule set a standard (known as SEER 13) that would require new air-conditioners and heat pumps to be 30 percent more energy-efficient as of January 2006. The Bush administration had proposed a softer standard known as SEER 12, which would have reduced the energy savings of the Clinton-era standard by more than a third.
The victors in Tuesday's decision include the Natural Resources Defense Council and the 10 state attorneys general, led by New York's Eliot Spitzer, who sued the Bush administration over this rollback. The court's decision was based on a provision of the 1989 National Appliance Energy Conservation Act, which stipulates that no energy-efficiency requirements passed under federal law can later be weakened.
"The DOE initially tried to argue that the SEER 12 standard was actually not weakening the SEER 13 standard -- patently absurd!" said Katherine Kennedy, a senior attorney at NRDC who helped prosecute the case. "When that didn't fly, they tried to argue that the SEER 13 standard never made it onto the federal register. Again, it didn't fly."
The court concluded, in no uncertain terms, "It is inconceivable that Congress intended to allow such unfettered agency discretion to amend standards, given the appliance program's goal of steadily increasing the energy efficiency of covered products."
According to Kennedy, the savings in both air emissions and energy bills from SEER 13 will be enormous: "By 2020, the difference between energy saved by SEER 12 and SEER 13 will be 14,000 megawatts -- enough to avoid the need to build 48 average-size power plants," she said. "And by 2020, consumers will save $1 billion a year in energy bills due to these efficiency improvements." The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy also calculated that by 2030, the energy saved will prevent the emission of more than 50 million metric tons of carbon dioxide -- the equivalent of taking 34 million cars off the road for one year. How 'bout that for a cost-benefit analysis?
Muck it up
Here at Muckraker, we always try to keep our eyes peeled and our ears to the ground (a real physiognomic challenge). The more sources we have, the better -- so if you are a fellow lantern-bearer in the dark caverns of the Bush administration's environmental policy, let us know. We welcome rumors, tips, whistleblowing, insider info, top-secret documents, or other useful tidbits on developments in environmental policy and the people behind them. Please send 'em along to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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