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Bush Faces Hostile Environment

Gregg Easterbrook is a senior editor at New Republic and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. His next book, "The Progress Paradox," will be published in December by Random House.

With Michael Leavitt’s nomination as Environmental Protection Agency administrator about to be taken up by the Senate this week, bear in mind that George W. Bush has “the worst environmental record in history,” according to senator and presidential candidate Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.). The worst in history, worse than Genghis Khan! Bush is engaged in an “assault on the environment,” according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, a respected environmental group.

The president has a “horrible” environmental record and his decisions are “transparently a giveaway to Mr. Bush’s corporate allies,” according to the New York Times editorial page. Bush is “gutting environmental protection,” says quasi-Democratic Sen. James Jeffords (I-Vt.) of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Oct. 23, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 23, 2003 Home Edition California Part B Page 17 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Environment -- An Oct. 14 Commentary piece incorrectly stated that President Bush “ordered that diesel fuel be reformulated to reduce its inherent pollution content.” The regulation was published by President Clinton. Bush’s order was that the Clinton rule be implemented without delay.

Practically all commentary about the Bush environmental record goes on in this humor -- it’s a disaster, it’s a nightmare, the world is ending.

Now it’s true that there are some major defects in Bush’s environmental policy -- mainly its lack of global warming reform and its failure to seek meaningful fuel-economy increases for SUVs and the misnamed “light” pickup trucks that increasingly dominate auto sales. But otherwise most of the charges made against the White House are baloney -- baloney being rolled and deep-fried with cheese for purposes of partisan political bashing and fund-raising.

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First, consider that all forms of air pollution except greenhouse gases have been declining for decades. Overall, air pollution is down 48% since 1970, though the American population has risen substantially during that period. Acid rain is down 41% since 1980. Nitrogen oxide emissions, which contribute to smog, are down 33% since 1990. All forms of air pollution except greenhouse gases declined under Bill Clinton and continue to decline under George W. Bush.

Commentators are outraged about changes that Bush made in the “new source rule” that governs aging power plants in the Midwest. They don’t add that emissions from those very facilities have been declining steadily -- a 40% reduction since 1980, even as electricity production in the Midwest has increased. The worst-case analysis is that Bush’s changes will only slow the rate of decline.

What’s more, all forms of water pollution have been declining for decades. In 1970, one-third of lakes and rivers met the Clean Water Act definition of “safe for fishing and swimming”; today almost two-thirds do. Toxic emissions from industry have declined 50% since the mid-1980s. The forested acreage of the United States has been expanding, not contracting, for more than a decade, and continues to expand under Bush. No U.S. animal species has fallen extinct since full implementation of the Endangered Species Act in the late 1970s, while population trend figures for several important imperiled species are positive.

The list goes on at some length. Except for greenhouse gases and vehicle fuel economy standards, all environmental trends have been positive for years or decades.

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But hasn’t the president imposed an evil new forest policy designed to encourage logging? First, it’s not so clear that logging is a bad idea; it’s one of the few endlessly sustainable industries. Also, Bush’s new forest policy leaves most important decisions to local managers from the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Though they may abuse their new discretion, it’s also possible they will use it wisely. For that reason the effect of Bush’s forest policy is hard to project -- but regardless, something had to be done to reduce the wildfires plaguing the West.

Isn’t the president engaged in a sinister plan to allow drilling on public lands? New White House rules do make it easier to drill for oil and natural gas on public lands. But you can’t demand no oil drilling and also demand no mileage restrictions on SUVs. Until American voters are willing to make a serious commitment to energy conservation -- and there is no sign of this -- it’s hypocritical to insist that oil and gas must be produced out of sight, out of mind.

Meanwhile, Bush has implemented three major new environmental reforms for which he has received zero credit. He ordered that diesel fuel be reformulated to reduce its inherent pollution content -- over the howls of his natural constituency, Big Oil. He ordered that new diesel trucks and buses meet significantly stricter emissions standards -- over the howls of House Speaker Dennis Hastert, in whose Illinois district sits an enormous diesel-engine factory. Third, he imposed new emissions standards on a range of previously unregulated machines -- construction vehicles, outboard motors, all-terrain vehicles and others.

Taken together, Bush’s three dramatic anti-pollution decisions should lead to the biggest pollution reduction since the 1991 Clean Air Act amendments.

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Why is the Bush environmental record so relentlessly distorted? Because it could ruin the instant-doomsday script. Democrats are bashing the president for political reasons, just as Republicans bashed Clinton for political reasons. Environmental lobbies raise money better in an atmosphere of panic, and so they are exaggerating the case against Bush.

The media haven’t helped. The New York Times, for example, has had the “new source rule” on its front page half a dozen times, endlessly and inaccurately implying that pollution from Midwestern power plants is rising. The Los Angeles Times too spins most environmental news negatively. A recent Times story, for instance, decried in its first paragraph “the highest levels of smog in Southern California in six years” -- even though that’s just a blip against a baseline of steady, spectacular decline. From 1999 through this summer, Los Angeles recorded just one Stage One ozone alert; 20 years ago, from 1979 to summer 1983, Los Angeles had 467 Stage One alerts.

But phony pessimism can backfire. By relentlessly exaggerating the case against Bush’s environmental policies, Democrats and environmentalists only serve to discourage the president from proposing higher vehicle mileage standards or meaningful global warming rules, the two most keenly needed ecological reforms. After all, Bush has already made substantial positive improvements in several environmental categories and has only been bashed as his thanks.

Optimism about success is what will inspire the country to great undertakings, such as preventing an artificial greenhouse effect. There can’t be optimism until Bush-bashers drop the phony pretense that everything is getting worse.

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