Be a Good Steward

Using Bush’s playbook, Kerry could employ executive orders to create a sustainable century

Adam Werbach

When John Kerry assumes the presidency in January, he’ll most likely face the same divided Congress George W. Bush did, and, like Bush he’ll need to rely on historic events and gullible senators from the opposite party to push through even a modest legislative agenda. 

Facing these challenges, Bush has achieved far more of his environmental agenda of self-regulation and under-enforcement through executive action than legislative proposals before Congress. It’s hard to imagine that Congress would vote to transfer billions of dollars from California consumers to energy companies — or stop enforcing the nation’s environmental laws and let corporate polluters off the hook for paying to clean up toxic waste — yet Bush has achieved all this and more through executive action. With acknowledgements to the current president, what follows is a list of four executive actions President Kerry could rip from President Bush’s playbook to create a new sustainable century.

Let the EPA Enforce the Law

At the same time Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was calling his brother to congratulate him on the Supreme Court’s decision on the Florida election, Environmental Protection Agency regulators were celebrating an important Clean Air Act victory. Two of the country’s biggest utilities had settled government lawsuits and committed to cut pollution from their aging coal-fired power plants by more than half a million tons a year — doggedly pursued by Eric Schaeffer, director of the EPA’s Office of Regulatory Enforcement. The victory was short-lived. Power-company lobbyists descended on the new Bush administration and helped write an administrative revision to the Clean Air Act that exempted old power plants from upgrading their pollution-control technology when they performed upgrades on the plants. The result: The dirty power plants could continue to pollute as long as they kept running. The administration encouraged power plants to wait for the Clean Air Act rewrites, rather than accept settlements. The administration then proposed a 13 percent cut in the enforcement budget for the EPA. Shaeffer and others quit in protest. 

Kerry should treat environmental crime with the same ferocity that the Bush administration has pursued drug offenses. His first change should be tripling the enforcement budget for the EPA and going after power companies, corporate hog farms, oil refineries, and diesel engine manufacturers that systematically violate U.S. environmental laws. In addition, he should direct the EPA to enforce a three strikes strategy for corporate polluters, in which companies fined three times for violating pollution laws would not be eligible for new development or pollution permits.


There are five members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) appointed by the president with the advice and of the consent of the Senate. FERC decides which fuels flow at what price through interstate pipelines and regulates the environmental aspects of projects like new hydroelectric plants. President Bush has appointed members to FERC who have run it as if it were a branch office for the largest energy companies in the United States. When California was choking under an energy crisis brought on by market manipulations by Enron, FERC refused to step in and help consumers. The result: California ratepayers were over-billed by $124 million in one month alone.

Kerry should appoint members to FERC who support a Renewables First policy for the United States. All new transmission investments would be targeted first to moving renewable energy from the places where we’ve got it (like wind in the Midwest) to places where we need it (like the Northeast and the West Coast). In addition, FERC would help implement a 25 percent renewable portfolio standard for federal agencies, meaning that 25 percent of the energy consumed by the federal government would need to come from renewable sources by 2012.

Ramp Up the Endangered Species Act

Since its passage in 1973, the Endangered Species Act has been the bedrock environmental law in the United States. To protect endangered species, the federal government must protect the habitat that sustains them, and Republican and Democratic presidents have listed species since its passage. In his first three years as president, Bush listed only 25 new species — and those were forced upon him by court orders. By comparison, Bush’s father averaged 58 new species a year for each of the years of his one-term presidency.

John Kerry should direct his secretary of the interior to rapidly move the listing of species, from charismatic mega-fauna to insects that serve as bellwethers of the survival of the ecosystems on the planet. There are a total of 256 species currently on the candidate list waiting to be added to the more than 1,200 already on the list. The Bush administration chronically under-funded the listing of species; an additional $30 million a year in the president’s budget would make a world of differences. A recent poll by Decision Research shows that nearly all voters (90 percent) believe it’s important that the Endangered Species Act provide a safety net for wildlife. Ramping up its use is the single most effective way to protect critical ecological assets.

A Different Type of Lobbyist

J. Steven Griles is deputy secretary of the interior for George W. Bush — one of the many former oil and coal industry lobbyists who are part of the Bush administration working to weaken our environmental laws. He’s still being paid more than $284,000 a year by his former firm while working for the government — essentially continuing his lobbying business from inside the government while receiving a federal paycheck. Griles has been busy. He has worked to lower emissions standards for power plants, speed up the sales of gas leases in the Rocky Mountain front, continue the mining practice of mountaintop removal and weaken the Clean Water Act.

Following Bush’s lead, Kerry should appoint people who are as passionate and focused on protecting the environment as Griles is bent on serving his former client base of oil and gas companies. Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, would be an ideal director secretary of the interior. Environmental attorney Robert Kennedy Jr. could be secretary of the EPA. Jane Goodall would make an excellent head of the National Forest Service. The Rocky Mountain Institute’s Amory Lovins should be secretary of energy. There are endless talented, solution-oriented advocates ready to step into service for the new president.

These four steps are only the beginning of what could be the greatest environmental presidency since the time of Nixon. John Kerry’s record shows that he cares deeply about the environment; the question is whether he’ll use all of the assets of the presidency to pursue an environmental agenda unflinchingly. Hopefully, we’ll find out soon.

Help In These Times Celebrate & Have Your Gift Matched!

In These Times is proud to share that we were recently awarded the 16th Annual Izzy Award from the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. The Izzy Award goes to an independent outlet, journalist or producer for contributions to culture, politics or journalism created outside traditional corporate structures.

Fellow 2024 Izzy awardees include Trina Reynolds-Tyler and Sarah Conway for their joint investigative series “Missing In Chicago," and journalists Mohammed El-Kurd and Lynzy Billing. The Izzy judges also gave special recognition to Democracy Now! for coverage that documented the destruction wreaked in Gaza and raised Palestinian voices to public awareness.

In These Times is proud to stand alongside our fellow awardees in accepting the 2024 Izzy Award. To help us continue producing award-winning journalism a generous donor has pledged to match any donation, dollar-for-dollar, up to $20,000.

Will you help In These Times celebrate and have your gift matched today? Make a tax-deductible contribution to support independent media.

Adam Werbach is the executive director of the Common Assets Defense Fund and a member of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. He is a former president of the Sierra Club, a position to which he was elected at the age of 23.
The War on Protest Cover
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.