Has Bush cleaned up his act?

Big Oil's man in the White House actually makes a green move -- just in time for the election.

Published May 14, 2004 9:02PM (EDT)

Yes, dear skeptics, you heard correctly: The Bush administration done good this week.

Landmark controls on diesel emissions, finalized Tuesday by the U.S. EPA, are expected to prevent 12,000 premature deaths and 15,000 heart attacks each year. And these were no warmed-over regs from the Clinton era, passed off as the Bushies' own, as was the case with the Highway Diesel Rule, a tough new standard that will dramatically reduce diesel pollution from trucks and buses starting in 2007. The Bush EPA can claim all the credit for this initiative, which regulates "non-road" diesel-powered equipment such as bulldozers, forklifts, tractors, and generators -- sources responsible for a surprising 60 percent of all diesel particulate matter, which is suspected of causing cancer.

The regulations require manufacturers to build 90 percent cleaner diesel engines for these nonroad machines, and call for a whopping 99 percent reduction of the sulfur content in the diesel fuel that will power the updated engines.

Enviros far and wide have sounded positively starry-eyed in their accolades: "The EPA staff have been phenomenal on this issue," said Richard Kassel, a Natural Resources Defense Council senior attorney who helped the agency draft the regulations. "They went out of their way to give us as much of a voice in this regulatory process as they did industry. Nobody can deny that this will be remembered as a historic victory for clean air."

Fair enough, but before we start thinking that the Grinch's heart has grown three sizes, a reality check is in order. Peer behind the curtain of the two-year process leading up to Tuesday's announcement and you'll see that the stars were unusually well aligned to usher this initiative past the usual Bush administration roadblocks -- aligned in a way that they will not likely be on other issues anytime soon.

For one thing, industry was onboard fairly early on. As Edward Murphy of the American Petroleum Institute told the New York Times, "This means a huge investment for us, in the billions. We're concerned about the cost, but it's worthwhile because the environmental benefits justify it."

Well, sort of. It's true that EPA numbers predict staggering health benefits from the regulations -- some $80 billion in savings from prevented heart attacks, asthma cases and premature deaths, compared to about $2 billion in costs to industry.

It's also true that from an industry standpoint, that $2 billion investment is worthwhile because the economics justify it. Here's why: Industry fought the Clinton administration's Highway Diesel Rule tooth and nail; among other tactics, it filed a lawsuit and tried to get the rule thrown out. But as soon as it lost that suit in May 2002 and Bush's Office of Management and Budget sanctioned the rules, industry could see the writing on the wall.

Once the industry folks had accepted their fate, it didn't take much to convince them to agree to diesel standards for nonroad vehicles. "Many of the manufacturers were already investing in this technology for their trucks and buses, so expanding that effort to their nonroad fleet has economies of scale that make it worthwhile," NRDC's Kassel told Muckraker.

The real costs to manufacturers were on the front end -- paying to develop the new technology for trucks and buses. Transferring that technology to other applications improves economies of scale and lessens the long-term financial burden of shifting to cleaner engines.

The same goes for the oil industry: If BP has to invest tens of millions of dollars to upgrade its refineries to meet the Highway Diesel Rule, it's more expedient and financially sensible for the company to do it for all of its fuel rather than just for some. Plus, all diesel currently flows through the same set of pipelines, and industry certainly didn't want to build a new set to keep the clean fuel separate from the dirty.

On the policymaking front, the EPA's work on the Highway Diesel Rule paved the way for the agency's development of the nonroad diesel standards. The career EPA employees charged with formulating the new set of regs had a well-established template to work from.

But the economics and the policy template were just two of the stars aligned in this process. Two others were John Graham, director of the OMB, and Christie Todd Whitman, former director of the EPA -- both of whom had made clear their interest in curbing diesel pollution before joining the Bush administration.

In Graham's previous position as director of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, he wrote of diesel as one of the biggest environmental hazards. "He's made it clear that he disagrees with the environmental community on almost every other issue -- mercury, ozone, climate change, you name it," said Kassel, "but diesel is the one area where Graham has consistently put down his foot."

Whitman, for her part, established her commitment to diesel-emission controls while serving as governor of New Jersey; she was one of the first state leaders to institute clean-diesel programs. Then, at the EPA, she got the ball rolling on the federal nonroad diesel rules and officially proposed them in April 2003, just weeks before resigning from her post.

And there's one last star in the diesel-rule alignment: It's an election year. For more than a month, the Bush campaign has listed this nonroad diesel program as one of its leading environmental achievements on its campaign Web site -- well before it became official. Clearly, the campaign is eager to tout this initiative in order to counter Bush's otherwise abysmal reputation on air.

Kevin Curtis of the National Environmental Trust further points out that the only companies that stand to suffer a major financial blow from these regulations -- Caterpillar and Cummins -- are headquartered in Illinois and Indiana, states where the presidential election outcome is all but decided. You don't have to be a risk-assessment hot shot like John Graham to figure out that the potential political benefits of this diesel initiative more than justify the costs to the Bush reelection campaign.

"It's the reverse of the Midas touch -- instead of turning to gold, everything they touch turns to shit."

That's how Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, explained the recent activities of the Bush administration's National Park Service to Muckraker. "Parks were supposed to be a feel-good story for the Bush administration," he said. "It was one of their leading green campaign issues in 2000. He was going to get the parks into tip-top shape. But now it's all Bad News Bears."

Yet you aren't likely to hear park superintendents deliver any bad news about budget crunches or poor air quality or any of the other controversies the NPS has gotten bogged down in over the last three years. The superintendents have gotten orders from Washington to follow a set of sunny "talking points" during any interaction with the media, according to internal NPS e-mails obtained by PEER and recently made public.

These memos seem to indicate that superintendents must muzzle any public communication of their concerns. If they feel the need to comment beyond the prescribed talking points, they are required to get approval from their superiors. In an e-mail sent to a high-level NPS employee last month, one regional park service official communicated a mandate from Washington: "Interviews with media regarding budget are to be consistent with [federal-level] talking points ... Anything more in depth needs to be 'blessed' at the region or [federal] level."

Talking points have "always been used in politics to help officials stay on message, but never before have they been used as shackles," said Ruch. "But this is an unusually aggressive effort to avoid further embarrassment on park-related issues during an election year."

The shackles are particularly constraining on the touchy topic of the NPS budget. While the fiscal year 2004 budget for the park service was bumped up modestly from 2003 levels, much of the funding has been diverted away from standard park operations to security efforts and responses to disasters such as fires, leading to a significant shortage of park funds for the coming summer tourist season.

"Park superintendents have been growing more and more concerned that they have inadequate funds to hire the rangers and naturalists that handle the influx of tourists during the summer season," said Ruch. "They're anticipating fewer days of open parks, closed park entrances, and a growing backlog of repair and maintenance problems."

Superintendents are now required to refer to budget cuts as "service-level adjustments," and they're advised to avoid the topic when possible. "[I]f you feel you must inform the public through a press release on this years [sic] hours or days of operation for example ... [do not] directly indicate that 'this is a cut' in comparison to last year's operation," ordered an internal memo sent in February to superintendents by a regional park service official, speaking on behalf of NPS deputy director Randy Jones.

Here's one suggested statement from the list of budget talking points: "This administration is very committed to preserving the resources of the National Park System ... Despite the challenges, NPS has fared well under President Bush with steady increases to the agency's budget."

NPS spokeswoman Elaine Sevy acknowledges that money is tight. "Anti-terrorism needs, storm damage for hurricanes, fire emergencies -- these are all costs that the Park Service didn't anticipate but has had to absorb, so when it comes to operating and managing the parks, things are tighter out there," she told Muckraker.

But Sevy characterizes the talking-point strategy as one that may actually help soften budget woes: "We're not asking them to follow a script. We've never tried to have a unified voice. What we try to do is help our superintendents. The problem is that some of them out there will speak out about a problem before they approach management to help them address it. Before they go and announce, 'We're closing a visitor center' or 'We're reducing operating hours,' we want them to let senior management know because that may not have to happen -- we might be able to move funds around and help them come up with a solution."

Budget issues are not the only area where commentary is being tightly controlled, though. All NPS superintendents received talking points on the subject of air quality in national parks on April 14, one day before eight of the nation's largest national parks were declared to be in violation of new standards for ozone pollution.

Not only did the air-quality talking points downplay pollution problems, but they played up the purported benefits of Bush's air policies and proposals: "The air in our most visited park, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, will be substantially improved by the strong new Bush administration regulations," read one. "Clear Skies should do for visibility in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park what the Acid Rain Trading Program did for acid rain reductions in the Adirondacks; namely, 100 percent compliance with no lawsuits," read another.

The Bush administration's punishment for the crime of candor has already been made clear through the fate of Teresa Chambers, chief of the U.S. Park Police. She was put on paid administrative leave last December after she commented to the Washington Post that the diversion of staff to homeland-security duties had led to gaps in other areas of service, creating, by extension, possible public-safety problems in parks and on parkways. Chambers could not grant an interview to Muckraker because she is forbidden from talking to the media without permission, on threat of losing her job. A protest against Chambers' suspension is gaining momentum through honestchief.com.

"Everybody knows these talking points are guidelines to avoid what's known as 'the Chambers treatment,'" said Bill Wade, director of the Coalition of Concerned National Park Retirees, a group of more than 220 retired park service officials. "If you tell the truth, you'll be quarantined and lose your job."

This is all part of the Bush administration's long-standing pattern of controlling information about problems rather than addressing the problems themselves.

"It's killing employee morale," said Ruch. "We get regular e-mails along the lines of, 'Help, I'm in hell,' or 'Thank God I've only got a couple more years of this [before I can retire].'" Since superintendents are in senior-level positions, most of them are in the twilight of their careers. And, according to Ruch, many had hoped for a more dignified end to their service: "They're seeing 25 years of achievements undone in the last 25 months," he said. "They've had to spend [their final years] exclusively doing damage control rather than adding to their lifetime achievements."

By Amanda Griscom

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