May/June 2004 - VOLUME 25 - NUMBERS 5 & 6
D i s s e c t i n g B u s h
The fact that the oil industry has been a major contributor throughout President Bush's political career may have something to do with his refusal to accept the fact that the oil industry is also a major contributor to climate change.
It's worth remembering that not only the President, but also his dad, his Vice President, his secretary of commerce and his national security adviser are all petroleum industry veterans (Condoleezza Rice even had an oil tanker named after her. Chevron changed its name after her White House appointment).
Although the President, unlike his father, failed to make any direct money in oil, he did work in the industry in the years before entering politics. In the early 1990s he made $848,000 selling off his oil stock just before his former company went bankrupt. An investigation into possible insider trading was derailed in Washington (his father was Vice President at the time). It was also Texas oil money that helped win him elected office as governor of Texas and later helped fund his campaign for President of the United States (the oil and gas industry contributed $33 million to federal candidates in the 2000 election cycle, with 80 percent of that going to Republican campaigns).
Still, during that campaign Bush managed to surprise observers when, in September 2000 he pledged to reduce emissions of four pollutants, including carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas generated by the burning of fossil fuels.
Within two months of taking office, the President reneged on that pledge, with some of his key supporters arguing that he had not understood what he was saying. He also withdrew the United States from the Kyoto Protocol to the Convention on Climate Change, signed by over 160 nations.
Part of the credit for these reversals has to go to Myron Ebell, a former lobbyist for the anti-environmental Wise Use movement that was founded to oppose the first President Bush (whose pledge to be "the environmental president" was taken seriously by the right). Ebell had moved from Wise Use to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a corporate think tank funded by, among others, David Koch of Koch Industries, a giant private energy corporation that in 2000 was forced to pay a $35 million fine for oil pollution of waterways in six states. From CEI, Ebell coordinated a series of climate backlash campaigns, bombarding the White House with calls, faxes and e-mails from industry and the right.
In the face of firm scientific consensus that fossil fuel-fired climate change constitutes a clear and present danger, the President insisted there was still an "incomplete state of scientific knowledge of the causes of, and solutions to, global climate change."
In making this claim, he quoted discredited statistics put out by the Greening Earth Society, a group established by the coal-powered Western Fuels Association that highlights the benefits of global warming.
Bush then ordered the prestigious National Academies of Science (NAS) to review the state of the science. Like dozens of previous assessments, the NAS report concluded that human activities were "causing surface air temperature and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise." In 2002, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a similar report identifying how the United States will experience dramatic changes in the coming decades due to climate change, including water shortages, extreme weather events and infestations of disease-bearing insects (such as mosquito-borne Dengue fever and West Nile virus).
"I read the report put out by the bureaucracy," Bush then told reporters at a press conference, assuring them he remained skeptical about the whole business. His spokesperson Ari Fleischer later admitted that the President hadn't actually "read" the report, but had been briefed on it.
A year later, EPA issued an upbeat "report card" on the state of the environment that -- under pressure from the White House Council on Environmental Quality -- altered its description of climate change, dropping all reference to its impact on "human health and the environment."
In lieu of any real action towards transitioning out of fossil fuels and into new carbon-free energy technologies, the Bush administration recently established a multi-year study of climate change that will review many of the questions about the human imprint on climate already resolved by mainstream science. At the same time, the administration continues to pursue an all-out effort to both expand domestic sources of fossil fuel production, secure overseas reserves (in places like Iraq and Russia) and eliminate environmental, regulatory and conservation standards that in any way hinder additional coal, oil and gas production.
It appears the President remains beholden to the oil patch culture in which he was raised and that has nurtured his political career and so refuses to confront the reality of human-enhanced climate change.
An alternative theory is that given his enjoyment of jogging in 100 degree-plus temperatures around his hobby ranch in Crawford, Texas, he just wants to share the warmth.
-- David Helvarg
"Filthy water cannot be washed," says an ancient West African proverb. Neither can filthy air -- humans have to take a preventive approach to ensure clean rivers and skies.
For a generation, the United States has fought pollution with regulations constraining the smokestack industries. That's why environmentalists are wary of President Bush's Clear Skies Initiative, an ambitious series of market-based policies that would fundamentally alter how the country addresses air pollution -- eviscerating, critics say, a flagship piece of environmental legislation that has led the way to cleaner air.
"The so-called Clear Skies Initiative would repeal a series of tools in the Clean Air Act designed to protect local communities and national parks from air pollution," says Frank O'Donnell, director of the Clean Air Trust.
The theory behind administration-favored "cap and trade" schemes is that a regulatory ceiling is set on how many emissions are allowed, and companies that don't want to reduce their own pollution are allowed to purchase the right to pollute from other companies. But Clear Skies, environmentalists point out, actually loosens existing caps on pollutants like nitrogen oxide (NOx) and sulphur dioxide (SO2), which cause smog and acid rain respectively. The Bush plan would allow 68 percent more NOx emissions and 225 percent more SO2 pollution.
"Our air has been getting cleaner for the last 30 years and we should continue that progress, not weaken clean air protections," says Nat Mund, a clean air lobbyist for Sierra Club. "Americans don't want a recall of the Clean Air Act."
While the U.S. populace as a whole supports the Clean Air Act, some big corporations that make money from polluting power plants would like to weaken the act's provisions. Clear Skies, would do just that, says O'Donnell.
"The Clear Skies Initiative was sold on a false premise from the get-go," he says. "The agreement was constructed to benefit powerful campaign contributors in the electric power industry and the coal industry."
There are also fairness objections to the plan that stem from the very nature of pollution trading. Since firms that can afford to pay can pollute, even if an overall reduction in emissions is achieved, some communities actually face increases in dirty air. This equity-based objection, environmentalists say, applies doubly to Clear Skies since it will not achieve a net reduction in pollution.
Some environmental organizations consider all market-based mechanisms suspect, arguing that such moves place profit over public health. O'Donnell argues there may be a place for cap-and-trade type controls in environmental regulation, though, "as long as they are not offered as a substitute for other protections."
This gets at the essence of his criticism: the administration's proposals trade off directly, O'Donnell says, with regulations that have been proven to work over decades.
"The Clear Skies Initiative would, in fact, substitute this cap-and-trade scheme for current protections," O'Donnell says. "We think that there are tools in the Clean Air Act to reduce pollution, and those tools should be used."
One tool that has already been weakened is called "New Source Review," a provision of the Clean Air Act that required old industrial plants -- those predating initial enactment of the Clean Air Act in 1970 -- to install modern pollution control technologies when performing facility upgrades [see "Shocking and Discouraging," an interview with Eric Shaeffer, this issue]. Now, under Bush administration interpretations, polluters could make "improvements" to their plants without being required to improve their pollution-suppressing technology -- as long as the new construction falls below a certain cost threshold.
Federal officials say that the rule change will help businesses. "The change we are making in this rule will provide industrial facilities and power plants with the regulatory certainty they need," said then-Acting Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Marianne Horinko.
Clean air advocates, though, say that the line between gutting New Source Review and diminished public health is clear and direct.
"The health impacts of getting rid of New Source Review are pretty straightforward: without new source review, any kind of smokestack industry could increase its pollution without any kind of pollution controls," says O'Donnell. "That could cause difficulty with breathing, asthma attacks, chronic bronchitis or emphysema -- even premature death." The absence of modern pollution control technologies at 51 plants subject to the New Source Review rule causes thousands of premature deaths every year.
"The Bush administration, using an arbitrary, Enron-like accounting gimmick, is authorizing massive pollution increases to benefit Bush campaign contributors at the expense of public health," says John Walke, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Clean Air Project. "Corporate polluters will now be able to spew even more harmful chemicals into our air, regardless of the fact that it will harm millions of Americans."
Besides these threats to air quality, O'Donnell is concerned about the potential for increased emissions of toxic mercury from coal-fired power plants. EPA's own estimates quietly acknowledge that merely enforcing existing Clean Air Act protections will diminish mercury pollution more than Clear Skies would. Under the current regime, mercury emissions will shrink to five tons per year by 2008. Sierra Club estimates say that the Bush Administration's plan would allow the release of 520 percent more toxic mercury, 26 tons per year, by 2010.
"Enforcement of current law would reduce pollution more effectively and quickly," O'Donnell says.
Unlike particulate pollution, mercury emissions aren't breathed. Risks come when it gets into water bodies, is eaten by fish, and then eaten by people. Once inside the human body, mercury creates a myriad of health problems.
"Mercury is particularly a problem for fetuses, newborn children and their moms," says O'Donnell. "It's a poison that lowers IQ, causes learning disabilities and mental retardation."
Shellfish eaters are especially susceptible to mercury, O'Donnell says -- giving rise to a joke making the rounds in Washington, D.C. Many current environmental problems, the sardonic bit of humor holds, can be traced back to Barbara Bush eating too much lobster while pregnant.
-- Jeff Shaw
When thousands were killed in New York City on September 11, 2001, the world mourned. In the aftermath of those catastrophic attacks, some environmentalists, worker safety advocates and Members of Congress warned that hazardous pollution from chemical and metal particles floating in the air could, when breathed, create epidemic health problems for New Yorkers -- or even a new generation of victims to mourn.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), tasked with keeping the public safe, assured workers that threats were minimal, issuing nine press releases in the four months following the attack to that effect.
But soon after the attacks, reports emerged to contradict the administration's claims. A team of University of California-Davis scientists found that the toxic hazards were unprecedented, dramatically worse than those of the oil field fires set in Kuwait by Iraq during the first Gulf War. Respected medical journals completed and published studies documenting recurring respiratory diseases in steelworkers and firefighters working at or near Ground Zero.
"There are many people inside and outside of Congress -- scientists and citizens -- who know about the dangers, and know that EPA did not clean up properly," says Jennie McCue, a spokesperson for Representative Jerrold Nadler, D-New York.
Now a raft of documents released over the past several months show that federal agencies and the Bush administration knew about the risks -- but hid them from the public. A report by the EPA's inspector general says that the White House pressured EPA to downplay the risks, and even removed important warnings from news releases before they went out to media and community groups.
Information that has trickled out indicates that even EPA's own surveys did not support the assurances the federal government was giving the public. More than one fourth of air samples EPA took in the vicinity showed significant danger from asbestos exposure.
Relying on Bush administration assurances that the air was safe, firefighters, clean-up crews, volunteers, residents and workers in the area breathed asbestos and harmful airborne particulates without taking precautions.
With controversy swirling about air safety near Ground Zero, EPA Acting Deputy Administrator Steve Johnson in March announced that a technical review panel would be formed and charged to monitor ongoing health impacts from the attacks.
"EPA continues to work to assure that the health and well-being of residents, workers and emergency responders in the New York metropolitan area are protected, following the collapse of the World Trade towers," he said.
Forgive New Yorkers if they don't express confidence in these assurances.
EPA and the Bush administration have stonewalled Members of Congress who requested information on the federal response. Congressional representatives stepped up their efforts after the EPA inspector general released a report last August alleging that the White House removed critical warning information from news releases issued at the time.
Nadler, along with Representatives Major Owens, D-New York, and Anna Eshoo, D-California, filed a Freedom of Information Act request with EPA last October, seeking to learn more about the results of the environmental monitoring -- as well as communications between EPA officials, trying to find who knew what and when, what response was chosen and why.
According to the inspector general, the White House Council on Environmental Quality "influenced Ö the information that EPA communicated to the public through its early press releases when it convinced EPA to add reassuring statements and remove cautionary ones."
"With respect to the Agency's early statement about air quality, we fully recognize the extraordinary circumstances that existed at the time the statement was made about the air being safe to breathe," the report reads. "It continues to be our opinion that there was insufficient information to support that statement."
Documents show that Sam Thernstrom, at the time communications director for the White House Council, had "screaming matches" with an EPA staff member over what to include in the press releases. The staff member, Tina Kreisher, then an associate administrator in EPA's Office of Communications, said she "felt extreme pressure" to change the content of the releases.
Besides seeking further release of vital documents, Nadler has asked both Attorney General John Ashcroft and House Speaker Dennis Hastert to open investigations into post-September 11 air pollution and the federal response to it. Despite repeated attempts, Nadler's office says, all requests have been ignored or rebuffed.
Besides seeking to get to the bottom of the air quality cover-up, Members of Congress are upset because they say clean-up data from 9-11 would be valuable in the event of another similar tragedy.
"It's frustrating when a Member of Congress requests information that could be valuable if a terrorist attack happens again, and that information is not provided," says McCue of Nadler's office.
-- Jeff Shaw
AUTHORS OF BUSH DISSECTION ARTICLES