Bushwhacked 

The administration unveils a new assault on environmental regulations.

Recently, the Bush administration unveiled possibly its biggest attack on the environment yet -- the evisceration of an Environmental Protection Agency program that forces power companies to upgrade pollution controls on older, coal-burning plants when they increase productivity.

Since President Bush took office, Democratic opposition in the U.S. Senate -- token as it was -- had provided at least some check on the administration's ambitions.

No more. In the Senate, control of the committee that oversees the environment switched from green-friendly Sen. James Jeffords (I-Vt.) to a man environmentalists see as an archvillain, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.). Inhofe has the lowest ranking possible from the League of Conservation Voters, a zero, meaning he has never voted for environmental legislation tracked by the league.

And Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), who's pushed for oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, will chair the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

In just two years, the two oilmen who run America have reversed or severely weakened long-standing protections for wilderness areas, water quality, and air quality.

When California tried to force car manufacturers to sell more fuel-efficient cars by 2006, the automobile industry fought back. No surprise there. But what's surprising is that the federal government intervened on behalf of the car makers. While that fits in with the administration's modus operandi to protect big business, rarely -- if ever -- has the White House stepped in to actually thwart a state's effort to reduce pollution.

Then there's the Bush/Cheney energy plan -- the same one that's got the vice president embroiled in lawsuits and accusations of co-opting an energy-industry wish list as the guiding energy principles for the nation. In August 2001, the U.S. House of Representatives passed portions of the Bush/Cheney energy plan that included $33.5 billion in tax breaks and other incentives for energy companies. That bill stalled in the Senate because of Democratic opposition but is now likely to be revived.

Released in May 2001, the energy plan included orders for the EPA to reevaluate the New Source Review program and for the U.S. Justice Department to revisit close to a dozen lawsuits it filed against electric utilities to get them to reduce pollution.

But getting those reductions now is doubtful. The Bush administration saw to that when it weakened the New Source Review program, undercutting the Justice Department's lawsuits and creating new loopholes for power plants, refineries, and chemical plants.

Through administrative rule-making, the administration has also restricted public access to information on potential chemical accidents, slowed down the cleanup at toxic-waste sites, and is now planning to allow mining companies to fill in lowlands with mining waste.

Meanwhile, the White House has waived logging protections at 12 national forests. Bush's Healthy Forests Initiative wants to cut down on fires by allowing the timber industry to thin more forest. (Bush also appointed former timber-industry lobbyist Mark Rey as undersecretary for natural resources and environment for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.)

The U.S. Forest Service just released a new policy that opens up about 100 miles of Forest Service roads to off-road vehicles. Before, the roads were open only to street-legal vehicles.

Two months ago, the Forest Service issued a memorandum to its law-enforcement officers telling them they could no longer write tickets to all-terrain-vehicle drivers on any road claimed by any county government or state government. Those two moves effectively opened up about 500 miles of Forest Service roads to ATVs.

The gauntlet has been thrown down. The Bush administration has declared open season on the environment.

A version of this column first appeared in Creative Loafing in Atlanta.

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