Civics and the Environment: A Modern Cautionary Tale

The Philadelphia Inquirer recently ran a story that illustrates how politics can slow environmental progress in ways many of us never stop to think about.

Neither the writer of that story nor I would be surprising anyone by stating that the outgoing Bush Administration has not exactly been a friend to the environment.  What is surprising is how deftly the Administration has apparently used our convoluted government and court system to get nothing done. For eight years.

The Inquirer story looks closely at how, through EPA, the Bush Administration did an end run around the House and Senate, which it knew would never agree to its new rules and changes to older rules when the American public had become so focused on global warming.  The point may not necessarily have been to set environmental policy backwards (even though it did), but more to delay inevitable regulation its industry friends knew would be coming their way sooner or later.

Because any summary of mine will be inadequate, read the article  for all the details. Here’s what I gathered:

It seems that the Bush Administration and EPA created the ultimate stall tactic by supporting rules that its own legal eagles warned them would never stand up in court. Case in point, its proposal on reducing mercury emissions through a nationwide mercury-credit trading program. Judges in the D.C. Circuit Court threw this rule out, noting that if enacted, it would likely concentrate toxic mercury emissions in specific sectors of the country. Not exactly fair for all Americans – a problem easy to see for the seasoned Court.  The Court eventually saw so many problem-plagued cases on EPA rules in the last eight years that it – including its more conservative members – began to question EPA’s motives.

The article also talks about the infamous “New Source Review” rule, which calls for power plants, oil refineries, paper mills and other big air polluters to submit to a re-permitting process whenever their facilities are expanded or upgraded.  Without getting into the gory details on the fight, the article points out a new fact here – arguments that ensued over the administrations proposed changes to this rule lead to the resignation of Bush’s first EPA Administrator, Christine Todd Whitman. Publicly, she allowed the administration to save face on the issue, but now, after years of silence, admits her refusal to sign off on the change led to her resignation.

All very enlightening.  But perhaps the most interesting item that comes out of this article is that the Bush Administration’s insatiable desire to lift the burdens of environmental responsibility on various industries, hurt everyone – including the very groups it was trying to help.  The Inquirer gives the example of Pennsylvania Power & Light, a power producer in Eastern Pennsylvania that initiated expensive scrubber installations at two of its plants in anticipation of generating emissions credits it could later sell on the market.  The investments would have put the company ahead on its environmental record, and generated revenue to pay for the projects.  That is if a rule the Administration had been warned was questionable had not been rejected in the courts. 

Moral of the story?  Denying and delaying when it comes to strengthening environmental policy and rule-making allows unacceptable levels of pollution to linger, but can also put American regulated industries in a state of confusion.  These kinds of political guessing games only diminish U.S. leadership on the environment on a global scale.  Be sure that your elected representatives – local, state and federal – know that you understand this when they tell you increased regulation hurts business.

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