The Clinton Administration, in a move already stirring controversy, is drafting a plan that relies heavily on financial incentives and voluntary methods to achieve a major reduction in atmosphere-damaging greenhouse gases by the year 2000.
Although the plan is intended to redeem a pledge made by President Clinton in an Earth Day speech in April, it actually sets the stage for the next major confrontation between the President and many environmentalists who had supported his candidacy.
The voluntary approach, in addition to key concessions made to the utilities industry, is a disappointment to many environmental groups, which had sought stricter, mandatory measures.
The Clinton program, now in the final drafting stage, includes a welter of conservation programs ranging from government efforts to expand the commercial market for energy-saving light bulbs, computers and automobile tires to tax breaks that would encourage utilities to switch from coal to cleaner-burning fuels, such as natural gas. The cost of the program is nearly $200 million, according to officials familiar with the plan.
The proposals are intended to cut the nation’s emissions of carbon-related gases to the 1990 level of roughly 1,450 tons within seven years--a 7% reduction from projected levels. Scientists have warned that the unchecked buildup in the atmosphere of these carbon-related compounds--such as carbon dioxide and methane--could create a “greenhouse effect,” raising temperatures on Earth and disrupting long-established patterns of weather, agriculture and wildlife.
Clinton’s package would mark Washington’s first effort to satisfy the terms of a Convention on Climate Change agreed to by more than 160 countries since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. In calling for a “national action plan,” Clinton declared last April that the plan would be a “clarion call, not for more bureaucracy or regulation or unnecessary costs but instead for American ingenuity and creativity to produce the best and most energy-efficient technology.”
Among the small number of proposals for mandatory conservation policies is a step that would expand nationwide a policy similar to one that has proven controversial in the four-county Los Angeles area: A requirement that employers who pay for employee parking also reimburse those who commute to work by car pool or on public transportation.
Another step would set tougher new minimum standards for the energy-efficiency of such household appliances as washers, dryers, refrigerators and air-conditioning and heating systems.
Clinton Administration officials conceded that the package of initiatives is limited in its reach, compared to tougher measures urged by environmentalists and embraced by some within the Administration. But they argued that the package, which Clinton likely will unveil in the next two weeks, is the most ambitious set of proposals the Administration can manage at a time when Congress has firmly resisted such mandatory conservation measures as energy tax increases and stiffer standards for automobile fuel-efficiency.
“This plan will appeal to the broad middle spectrum in Congress and there are some that’ll complain on both sides,” said one Clinton Administration official. “It’s going to be viewed in the same way that a lot of the Administration’s environmental initiatives have been: They tackle tough problems but they strike a balance. And they tend to disappoint people at the edge of the political spectrum. What’s finally come out here is a pretty balanced plan that can achieve a goal without taking industry through the ringer.”
Environmentalists, who had placed great hopes in Clinton’s campaign pledges and in the influence of Vice President Al Gore, said that they still hope to sway the Administration to adopt tougher measures that have greater certainty of reducing carbon emissions. But they said that they are preparing to be disappointed.
“The plan we’re hearing about is one that George Bush could have produced,” said Dan Becker, a Sierra Club analyst specializing in greenhouse gas issues. “It has no hammers, no substantial requirements. And the numbers don’t add up: You can’t get dramatic benefits from throwing pennies at a program and not requiring anything of industry. This plan would not be a ‘clarion call.’ It would be a broken promise.”
Environmentalists are particularly irked by Clinton’s unwillingness to raise mandatory fuel-efficiency standards for cars beyond the current level of 27.5 m.p.g.
Clinton, at several points in his campaign, endorsed a 45 m.p.g. Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard for cars--a measure that environmentalists believe could reduce yearly carbon emissions by as much as 40 million tons. But Administration officials acknowledged that, while such a measure was hotly debated, no mileage standard will appear in the current package. Instead, it will include a government-sponsored program to label new low-resistance tires, which allow cars to get higher gas mileage.
But many environmentalists also are angered by the Administration’s decision to allow industry to claim emission reductions by leaving forests intact or planting large tracts of new trees.
Because trees absorb some carbon, many people--especially in industry--have argued that credits should be given for reforestation efforts, widely known as “sinks.” The utilities industry--a major source of greenhouse gas emissions--has lobbied vigorously to get tax incentives and other considerations from the government in exchange for reforestation work.
The Administration’s repudiation of tougher gas mileage standards and its adoption of “sinks” represent major defeats for environmentalists and victories for organized industrial interests.
Industrial leaders have argued that mandatory automobile efficiency standards--and for that matter, any mandatory conservation regulations--would hurt American industry and cost jobs, a charge to which the Clinton Administration is highly sensitive.
The plan suffered a major setback when the Administration, under heavy pressure from Congress and industry, agreed in July to withdraw a proposal to impose a broad-based energy tax. That measure was expected to reduce yearly U.S. carbon emissions by 25 million tons, or a quarter of the total reductions sought by Clinton.
After the broad-based tax was pulled and replaced with a narrower tax that would cut yearly emissions by 4 million tons, Clinton Administration officials had to scramble to make up for the loss of a central pillar in the Administration’s plan. Over three months, they have sought to piece together dozens of smaller initiatives, each of which would reduce the nation’s carbon emissions more modestly.