WASHINGTON - The Bush administration eased
a series of important environmental regulations in a quiet flurry of late-summer activity, delivering almost every rule change
on corporate America's wish list.
They're trying to dismantle some of the
original clean air and water legislation that (President) Nixon put through. They're going full bore.
Lester Brown, the president of the Earth Policy Institute
In the past few weeks, the administration
diluted federal rules governing air pollution from old coal-fired power plants; emissions that cause global warming; ballast
water on ships contaminated with foreign species of plants and animals; sales of land tainted with PCBs; drilling for oil
and gas on federal land; and scientific studies that underpin federal regulations.
In every case the business community got
what it wanted, and environmentalists got mad.
Administration supporters say the rule changes
are in part attempts to eliminate unnecessary government edicts that curtail energy production, discourage investment, hinder
the economy or cost jobs. Moreover, they say, not all rule changes have favored industry, although they acknowledge that most
Frank Maisano, an energy lobbyist at the
Bracewell & Patterson law firm in Washington, pointed to new rules restricting diesel engines, issued last April. Those
strong rules, praised by environmentalists, were enacted over the objections of the diesel-engine industry, Maisano said.
Nevertheless, Bill Kovacs, the vice president
for environmental issues of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the business community won more environmental battles during
the final week of August than it had during the entire eight years of the Clinton administration.
"We certainly had a number of victories this
week; I don't think anyone can deny that," Kovacs said on the Friday before Labor Day.
He and two big-industry lobbyists said the
Bush administration had delivered nearly every environmental regulatory change business put on its to-do list in January 2001.
Their industries got every change they wanted, the lobbyists said.
"This administration is dismantling anything
that's impairing industry or the private sector's ability to develop, use land or produce energy," said Carl Reidel, professor
emeritus of environmental policy and law at the University of Vermont.
Experts say the timing of the changes wasn't
"They need to get this stuff out of the way
before they get into an election year; they need to get enough below the radar," said political science professor Stephen
Meyer, the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Project on Environmental Politics and Policy.
"The Bush administration always likes to
announce unpopular environmental policies in the dead of political and press night. And you can't find a week when people
are less likely to pay attention than the end of August," said Phil Clapp, the president of the National Environmental Trust.
Lisa Harrison, the Environmental Protection
Agency's chief spokeswoman, denied that the timing was politically motivated.
"It is interesting sport for people to offer
their conjecture, but it's nothing more than that," she said. "A lot always comes out of the agency. I never had a week that
was not like last week."
John Byrne, the director of the Center for
Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Delaware, said the record spoke for itself: "If you just looked at what
were rule-making efforts by the administration, you'd see this is a crowded four-month period, particularly in difficult decisions."
Harrison agreed that the administration has
put most of its regulatory agenda in place. "That's certainly a testament . . . to the president keeping his commitment,"
Environmentalists don't see it that way.
While all the changes involved rewrites of arcane regulatory language, they constituted major U-turns in policy.
"They're trying to dismantle some of the
original clean air and water legislation that (President) Nixon put through," charged environmental economist Lester Brown,
the president of the Earth Policy Institute. "They're going full bore."
The decisions included:
- Two controversial changes
in a rule governing expansion of old coal-fired power plants, dramatically easing the rules requiring companies to install
new pollution controls when they make big upgrades.
- Two legal opinions ruling
that carbon dioxide, which most scientists say is the chief cause of global warming, isn't a pollutant that the EPA can cite
to regulate emissions from cars and power plants. The rulings reverse a Clinton administration legal opinion that carbon dioxide
is a pollutant.
- An EPA legal opinion
declaring that it won't regulate ships' ballast water under the Clean Water Act, turning the issue over to the Coast Guard.
The ballast water contains billions of tiny fish, plants and other foreign invasive species that scientists say are major
threats to native species in American waters.
- An edict changing a
25-year-old rule to allow the sale of land tainted with toxic PCBs.
- An order to Bureau of
Land Management field offices in the West telling them to speed up the process permitting drilling for oil and gas on federal
- A new Office of Management
and Budget policy governing scientific studies used to justify costly federal regulations. The policy orders more stringent
peer review; environmentalists fear it will slow the enactment of environmental regulations.
"There's a lot of dramatic change going on.
And a good bit of which would be thought of by many as not very environmentally sound," said Dan Esty, who was the EPA's deputy
chief of staff in the first Bush administration and now heads Yale University's Center for Environmental Law and Policy.
The rule changes that affect air pollution
from power plants "are really breath-taking in terms of the scope of regulatory change," said Chuck Davis, a Colorado State
University political scientist who specializes in environmental policy. "And there's not a whole lot environmentalists can
do about it, except challenge it in courts."
Unable to get bills that would weaken environmental
laws through Congress, the administration made all these changes as administrative rulings.
"They leave the laws in place, but undermine
the regulations below them, undermine the rules and undermine the agencies," said MIT's Meyer. "The details get lost because
the average person doesn't have the details or the time to follow it."
Kovacs of the Chamber of Commerce said Bush
was simply borrowing a tactic that the Clinton administration routinely used.
"They figured out what the Clinton administration
figured out," Kovacs said. "If you control the agencies, you use them. I wish they had done it sooner."
2003 Knight-Ridder Newspapers