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.

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.
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