King Coal

Since taking office, George W. Bush has aggressively rolled back environmental regulations and initiatives. What he hasn't achieved by changing the rules he has done by reducing the staff devoted to enforcing them. According to a study by AIR Daily, the number of air-quality inspectors fell by 12 percent this year, and the number of inspections fell by 34 percent from the administration's first year. Bush's animus toward environmental legislation is personal and ideological, but it is also integral to his 2004 re-election strategy.

As is well known, Bush and the Republicans have been generously funded by business foes of regulation. According to a Public Campaign and Earthjustice report, mining, timber, oil and chemical industries have contributed more than $44 million to Bush and the Republican National Committee (RNC) in the last three years. Less well-known is that Bush's opposition to regulation is part of an electoral strategy designed to win the votes of coal, timber and oil-producing states. These include the eastern swing states of West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania, as well as traditionally Republican states in the West and Southwest.

Bush and his aides traveled to those swing states: Prior to the 2002 election, Bush paid an astonishing five visits to Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito's 2nd Congressional District in West Virginia. More important, the administration has geared its policies to their industries. If you want to understand Bush's environmental agenda, don't ask Christie Todd Whitman, the feckless administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency; ask William Raney, the president of the West Virginia Coal Association.

In the eastern states, Bush's environmental agenda is focused on coal. West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania are the center of coal production in the East. Coal is a cheap and plentiful fuel, but it's also a major source of environmental degradation and air pollution. Coal mining destroys streams and wildlife and can cause flooding; coal-burning power plants emit carbon dioxide, which contributes to global warming, and sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and soot particulates, which cause respiratory illnesses. With "clean coal" technology promising only marginal improvements, rigorous enforcement of the Clean Air and Clean Water acts would result in a gradual shift away from coal and toward natural gas. Yet in his search for coal-state electoral votes, Bush has discouraged anti-pollution efforts aimed at coal.

In March 2001, Bush, reportedly acting on the advice of White House political director Ken Mehlman, announced that his administration would not regulate pollution from carbon dioxide. Later that month, Bush also declared that the United States would not support ratification of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. This year, Bush announced his "Clear Skies" initiative, which would modify the Clean Air Act to allow companies more time to achieve lesser reductions in sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury emissions while putting no limits on carbon dioxide. Blocked by Sen. James Jeffords (I-Vt.), the chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, it is likely to win passage under the committee's new chairman, Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), who has received the worst possible ratings from the League of Conservation Voters.

The Bush administration also sided with the West Virginia Coal Association on the issue of mountaintop mining. Coal companies in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky have been cutting off mountaintops and dumping the refuse into the valleys and waters below, destroying a thousand miles of streams, killing fish and wildlife, and precipitating flash floods. In 1999, federal Judge Charles H. Haden II, citing the Clean Water Act, stopped the practice. The Clinton administration backed Haden's decision, and in the 2000 election, Bush and Republicans won votes from West Virginians worried that the ruling would eliminate jobs. This year, the Bush administration announced new regulations that exempted mountaintop mining from the Clean Water Act. A month later, Haden enjoined the administration from using the new regulations, but Bush is now appealing that injunction. Given that a higher court eventually overturned Haden's first ruling, it's likely that the Bush administration and the coal companies will get their way.

The administration also won the hearts of coal companies by coming to the defense of older coal-burning power plants that lack effective anti-pollution equipment. The EPA has long required utility companies that want to expand or modify their older plants to install new pollution devices. Under this program, called New Source Review (NSR), the Clinton administration brought suit against eight utility companies for failing to upgrade their pollution controls. According to a study by the Rockefeller Family Fund, pollution from those utilities alone is likely responsible for 5,900 premature deaths and 140,000 asthma attacks annually.

This time, the Bush administration took its cue from an e-mail sent by the Southern Company, a defendant in a Clinton suit and a major contributor to Bush's campaign. It has sought to create loopholes in the NSR program that would exempt many utilities from upgrading their anti-pollution equipment. In Senate testimony, Vermont Attorney General William H. Sorrell warned, "A rollback in the NSR program will result in increased respiratory disease, premature death, smog, acid rain, and degradation of our waters and forests." But Bush isn't looking to win Vermont's electoral votes.

Bush has also filled critical posts in his administration with former lobbyists sympathetic to coal and to the power companies. Jeffrey Holmstead, who lobbied for the Alliance for Constructive Air Policy, an industry coalition set up to undermine the Clean Air Act, was made EPA assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation. John H. McCutcheon II, Bush's campaign coordinator in West Virginia, was made a senior policy adviser in the Department of Energy's Office of Fossil Energy. Last summer, after penning a memo urging the EPA to eliminate restrictions on the amount of soot particulates that coal-burning plants are permitted to release, McCutcheon told The Charleston Gazette, "By God, I'm proud to be from West Virginia. The president knows I'm from West Virginia, and I'm going to continue to do everything I can to make sure that regulations that affect the coal industry are based on sound science."

With an eye toward the 2004 election, Bush has given equal heed to mining, oil and timber companies in western states. Much of the coal digging in Wyoming, Montana and Colorado takes place on the earth's surface. In 2000 the EPA reported that "mining in the western United States has contaminated stream reaches in the headwaters of more than 40 percent of the watersheds in the West." One mine's cyanide spill into Colorado's Alamosa River in 1992 killed all the plant and animal life along a 17-mile stretch. In January 2001, after a decade of study, the Department of the Interior finally issued regulations on this kind of hard-rock mining; the rules forbade companies from enacting plans that would cause "substantial irreparable harm" to an area. In October 2001, the Bush administration eliminated this irreparable-harm provision.

Timber companies in the West, which contributed $3.4 million to Bush and the RNC in the last three years, have bristled under government logging restrictions. They wanted the Bush administration to revise the Northwest Forest Plan, which was adopted in 1994 to maintain old-growth forests. They were also looking for a way around the National Environmental Protection Act, which subjects new logging plans to environmental review. Bush has used the threat of forest fires to get the timber companies what they wanted. While most forest experts believe that fires can best be combated by thinning out scrub brush and by selectively cutting some trees, Bush has taken the timber industry's line that this requires cutting down the huge trees in old-growth forests. Bush's "healthy forests" initiative would exempt timber companies from environmental review when they can show that their plans would prevent forest fires.

Bush, who received $17 million from oil and gas companies over the last three years, has also opened up previously protected federal lands in the West to oil and gas exploration. During his first year in office, federal leasing grew by 54 percent. This year environmental groups have taken legal action to block Bush's plan to give oil and gas companies access to Wyoming's Powder River Basin, to Colorado's Canyons of the Ancients National Monument and to the federal lands between Utah's Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. But the new Republican Senate will probably approve Bush's energy plan, which includes oil and gas exploration in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as well as a $5.84 billion subsidy to the coal industry.

The Bush administration has put former timber and oil lobbyists in key positions, among them J. Steven Griles, the deputy secretary of the Interior, whose lobbying firm represented the American Petroleum Institute, and Mark Rey, the undersecretary of Natural Resources and Environment at the Department of Agriculture, who fought the Northwest Forest Plan on behalf of timber companies. Interior Secretary Gale Norton was lead attorney for the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which represented oil companies demanding access to public lands in the West.

In the 2002 elections, Bush and the Republicans reaped the benefits of this assault on environment regulations without incurring political costs. Said the Pew Center's Carroll Doherty in the Houston Chronicle, "From the polling we've seen and done, clearly, the environment is a weakness of the administration. The question is, at a time when terrorism is Topic A and B and C, does it really matter?" But 2004 could prove a more difficult test of the president's strategy. If the war on terrorism is no longer omnipresent, Bush may finally be forced to defend policies that benefit West Virginia coal companies but bring acid rain and asthma to the rest of the country.

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