Monday, November 08, 2004

G.O.P. Plans to Give Environment Rules a Free-Market Tilt


November 8, 2004

WASHINGTON, Nov. 7 - With the elections over, Congress and the Bush administration are moving ahead with ambitious environmental agendas that include revamping signature laws on air pollution and endangered species and reviving a moribund energy bill that would open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy exploration.

In addition, the administration intends to accelerate conservation efforts by distributing billions of dollars to private landowners for the preservation of wetlands and wildlife habitats. The White House also plans to announce next month a new effort to clean up the Great Lakes.

The groundwork for the push was laid down in the past four years even as environmental groups, Congressional moderates and the courts put the brakes on major changes. But the election returns that gave Mr. Bush a clear victory and expanded the Republicans' majorities in Congress have emboldened those determined to hard-wire free-market principles into all environmental policy.

"The election is a validation of our philosophy and agenda," Michael O. Leavitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said in an interview. "We will make more progress in less time while maintaining economic competitiveness for the country. That is my mission."

Representative Joe L. Barton of Texas, chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, said he was eager to get the process started and encouraged the environmental groups and Democrats who typically oppose Republican initiatives "to come out of the trenches and meet me halfway."

But with industry groups anticipating relaxed regulations and environmental groups fighting to retain stiff regulations, the environmental debate over the next four years could be contentious.

"What you're going to see is an administration focused on setting broad goals and then letting states and companies and individuals work to achieve those, within an economic framework," said Charles Wehland, a lawyer for Jones Day in Chicago who represents clients like the OGE Energy Corporation and the Great Lakes Chemical Corporation. But Phil Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, a nonprofit group, warned the White House and Congressional leadership that it would be risky to further push the agenda of the last four years.

"George Bush doesn't have to run again, but Republican lawmakers do," Mr. Clapp said. "They know there is a cost to their political association with rolling back environmental laws."

Nationally, the environment was a sleeper issue that never awoke. But concern for environmental and conservation issues was sometimes visible at the local level. Montana voters, for instance, rejected an initiative to overturn a ban on a form of mining cyanide, effectively blocking a large new mine on the Blackfoot River.

Bush administration officials say that among the first measures moving toward enactment will be those that govern air pollution levels. The administration initiative known as Clear Skies, which generated lukewarm support in Congress during Mr. Bush's first term, is about to come out of mothballs. Will Hart, a spokesman for Senator James M. Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican who is chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, said it was Mr. Imhofe's "No. 1 environmental issue."

Clear Skies establishes lower emission standards for pollutants like nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and mercury, but environmental groups complain that it does not reduce them as much or as soon as levels set forth in a competing bill or by enforcement of the Clean Air Act.

Senator James M. Jeffords, the Vermont independent who is the ranking minority member of the committee and a co-sponsor of the competing bill, said it saddened him that Mr. Bush was leading efforts to undermine air standards that his father, the first President Bush, supported. Citing the new alignment in the Senate - 55 Republicans, 44 Democrats and himself - Mr. Jeffords said, "We have the power to block any measure detrimental to the environment."

New York Times


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