Hostile Environment

The cash box conservatives come to Washington

Jeffrey St. Clair

I’m both a compassionate conservative and a passionate conservationist,” proclaimed Interior Secretary Gale Norton in late February during a speech at Bob Packwood’s Dorchester Conference, an annual confab on the Oregon Coast for Western Republicans. I respectfully disagree with those who say that to be good stewards of our national treasures, we must be willing to sacrifice jobs.” 

Norton didn’t elaborate on what she meant by this. Nor did she unveil her agenda at the Interior Department, other than to say that she believed Snake River chinook salmon could be saved without tearing down the four dams that have brought them to the brink of extinction, and that the oil that lies under the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could be exhumed without so much as a stain on the tundra. But the people in the audience got her drift. When you compare Gale to Bruce Babbitt, you know that help is on the way,” says Paulette Pyle, a lobbyist for pesticide and agribusiness concerns. 

Consider those national monuments created during the closing hours of the Clinton presidency. Many right-wingers want Norton to get rid of them. But that’s not Norton’s style. As she told the Washington Post: I’m not Jim Watt. I’ve matured.” 

Instead, Norton has decided to leave the monuments intact, but she has signaled that it might be OK to explore for oil or coal inside them. That’s how you can be a good steward of our national treasures” without sacrificing jobs.” 

The early read on Norton is that she is a lot smarter and more politically savvy than her mentor Watt. Norton understands what many of Republicans failed to notice: The national monument designations were mainly political fluff that imposed few real restrictions on commercial activities inside the boundaries. Bush backed up Norton’s nefarious scheme. There are parts of the monument lands where we can explore without affecting the overall environment,” he mumbled in an interview with the Denver Post. It depends upon the cost-benefit ratio. There are some monuments where the land is so widespread, they just encompass as much as possible. And the integral part – the precious part, so to speak – will not be despoiled. There’s a mentality that says you can’t explore and protect land. We’re going to change that attitude. You can explore and protect land.” 

It’s easy to see where this kind of boasting is headed. The Bush administration is advancing on multiple fronts, aimed at forcing the environmental community to blink and sign off on a deal. Perhaps it’s protection of the national monuments in exchange for limited exploration of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Or vice versa. Some believe that Bush’s inner circle (namely Cheney and Norton) is less anxious to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge than it is to resurrect old Reagan-era schemes involving the Rocky Mountain Front, the eastern flank of the mighty range running from north of Denver through Wyoming and Montana. They could tap the Rockies’ oil, coal, shale oil and, if you believe the oil industry’s press releases, the largest trove of natural gas on the continent. 

In another example of the Norton two-step, she has offered, as proof of her green bona fides, a plan to boost the budget of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a federal trust account that is used to purchase threatened lands with unique natural values. To the uninitiated this sounds like a laudable endeavor. After all, under past Republican administrations the billion-dollar LWCF has been moribund: Either it was unused because of right-wing opposition or juggled around in order to help conceal the size of the federal deficit. But the kicker is that the LWCF is financed by royalties from oil drilling on federal lands and the Outer Continental Shelf. So any hike in LWCF funding will necessarily involve an increase in public-lands oil leases, an unyielding obsession of the Bush team. 

Norton adores the LWCF because it fits snugly into her free-market environmentalism mantra, which dictates that private property rights are sacred and not to be trampled upon by imperious federal regulations, such as the Endangered Species or Clean Water acts. According to her worldview, if the federal government wants to regulate use of private lands it should pay compensation or buy the property outright. Of course, this kind of cash box conservationism spells a death knell for many environmental laws and, if taken to its logical extreme, is also a surefire way to bankrupt the federal treasury faster than the Bush tax cuts. 

One of Norton’s rare missteps so far was her pick for the No. 2 position at Interior: Stephen Griles, an oil and mining industry lobbyist. Griles is one of those Washington political poltergeists, who scurries back and forth between the government and private sector wreaking havoc on behalf of his industry cronies. Under Reagan, Griles toiled in several different slots in the Interior Department, most deviously at the Office of Surface Mining, where he strove to obstruct any limits on the machinations of big coal. His tenure there, highlighted by an unyielding defense of even the most rapacious forms of strip mining, has earned him the lifelong enmity of anti-mining activists from Arizona to West Virginia. 

As much as the anti-federal government crowd excoriates Washington as a kind of postmodern Babylon, once they’ve settled inside the Beltway, few of them seem to return to their homesteads in the hinterlands even after their careers as so-called public servants have expired. Griles, for instance, cashed in on his expertise at manipulating the government in the service of industry by becoming a top corporate lobbyist at the coyly named National Environmental Strategies. 

But Norton’s choice of Griles may backfire. In doing so, she snubbed Dick Cheney’s flyfishing buddy John Turner, thought to be the frontrunner for the post. Turner, who lives near Cheney in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, served as director of the Fish and Wildlife Service during the first Bush administration. Back then Turner was viewed as something of a moderate in a department headed by the zany Manuel Lujan. (Lujan once opined that perhaps some species, like the spotted owl, simply weren’t equipped to handle the rigors of life in the modern world and should be allowed to gracefully enter the oblivion of extinction.) Ultimately, Turner’s nomination was sabotaged by Wise Use zealots and their congressional stooges, most notably Sen. Larry Craig (R‑Idaho), who chafed at Turner’s reluctance to openly defy the edicts of the Endangered Species Act. 

But upon closer scrutiny, Turner’s reputation as a conservationist – greatly abetted by mainstream green outfits – proves rather hollow. Grassroots activists recall his efforts in the early 90s to suppress internal reports calling for the protection of the spotted owl and Pacific salmon stocks, as well as his willingness to entertain the notion of corporate sponsorship for the national parks. It may have been easier for smooth-talking Turner to advance the Norton/​Bush agenda than Griles, a self-proclaimed corporado, who will be ceaselessly attacked by the green establishment as an industry puppet. 

To get a better grip on where the Bush crowd is going, it’s important to look into some of the more remote corners of the administration, where much of the real dirty work will be hatched and carried out. Take the decidedly unalluring Office of Management and Budget. OMB seems likely to lead a stealth attack on environmental regulations, much as it did during the previous Bush administration. What regulations Bush won’t kill outright, they’ll simply starve to death for lack of funds,” predicts Larry Tuttle, director of the Portland, Oregon-based Citizens for Environmental Equity. 

One of the more obscure outposts at OMB is the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. It’s the equivalent of a Star Chamber for corporations seeking relief from pesky environmental and safety standards. To head this outfit, which one Senate staffer dubbed the office of corporate ombudsman,” Bush has nominated John Graham, a longtime hired gun for polluting industries. Graham now runs the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, which has received millions in financial aid from dozens of oil, timber, chemical and mining companies, including: Arco, timber giant Boise Cascade, BP, the Chemical Manufacturer’s Association, the Chlorine Chemistry Council, DuPont, General Motors and Monsanto. 

Graham’s routine is to solicit money from big corporations facing litigation or legislation to curb shoddy, toxic or dangerous business practices. He then writes a book, paper or article debunking the supposed dangers, citing risk analysis” studies showing that the costs to the company of correcting the problem far outweigh the risk to the public. According to a report by Public Citizen, in 1991 Graham sought money for his center from Philip Morris. Five months later, Graham asked the tobacco company to review a chapter in his book on second-hand smoke. Since then Philip Morris repeatedly has cited Graham’s work to undermine the EPA’s efforts to regulate second-hand smoke. 

Graham currently serves on the EPA’s dioxin review board, where last year he put forward the inane theory that small doses of dioxin might actually help prevent certain forms of cancer. He urged the EPA to include a note in its report on the deadly chemical stating that dioxin is an anti-carcinogen.” Had Graham prevailed, this absurd footnote would have made it extremely difficult for the EPA to hold the line on dioxin emissions. A person with such disdain for public priorities should not be given a last-ditch veto over the will of the public,” warns Joan Claybrook, director of Public Citizen. Installing an industry-funded flack in such a crucial position would harm the public for generations.” 

Despite toiling for biotech companies and the pesticide-happy agribusiness giants of California’s Central Valley, Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman waltzed through her confirmation hearings and wasn’t even confronted with a single nagging question on her plans for the Forest Service, the largest agency in the Agriculture Department. But two months into her tenure, things over at the USDA are beginning to look very bleak indeed. 

Before Clinton left office, the Forest Service completed its much ballyhooed plan for roadless areas in national forests. An election-year scheme designed to boost Al Gore’s standing with greens, the plan called for banning most new roads and some forms of logging in so-called roadless lands 5,000 acres and larger in national forests. In the end, the proposal, which was riddled with loopholes, fell far short of the expectations of most environmentalists. Even so, the plan was wildly popular with the public and political opinion-makers. The roadless area rule was set to go into effect on March 13. But the timber industry, in the nadir of another of its frequent slumps, fumed at the idea and goaded Bush into slapping a hold on the plan soon after the inauguration. Then in separate suits Boise-Cascade and the state of Idaho asked a federal court to overturn the rule, putting forth the fantastical theory that the plan hadn’t been subjected to enough public review. 

That case should have been dismissed outright, because the roadless area plan had gone through more public review than any environmental impact statement in the past 25 years. There were more than 1.6 million comments and 600 public meetings,” says Tim Hermach, director of the Native Forest Council, based in Eugene, Oregon. This plan was studied to death.” 

But the Bush administration lawyers, put in the indelicate position of having to defend a plan they wanted to see abolished, simply threw up their hands, telling the judge they would be willing to suspend implementation of the plan indefinitely. This was their first opportunity to defend the policy and they’ve come in with an offer to suspend it,” says Tom Preso, an attorney for Earthjustice, which is representing numerous environmental groups that have intervened in the case. The Bush administration is giving every indication that they want to bring bulldozers back into the national forests. It’s certainly a far cry from the vigorous defense of the rule promised by Attorney General John Ashcroft during his confirmation hearings.” 

But even the hand-picked judge didn’t buy the Bush lawyers’ argument. He told them that they couldn’t simply put the plan in dry storage, and had to defend its merits in court. In reality, this is an orchestrated winking game between the Bushies and their pals in industry – the lawsuit and the pleadings were coordinated between the plaintiffs and the defendants. This incestuous scam points toward a key Bush strategy: Let third-parties do the heavy lifting on the most controversial issues in order to deflect some of the political heat. 

A similar scenario is playing itself out in Alaska, where the Bush administration is allowing the state’s congressional delegation and governor, Democrat Tony Knowles, to take the lead on the heated issue of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, a scheme that enjoys little public support. Indeed, the administration quietly urged Knowles to push the state legislature into approving a $1.85 million appropriation to a front group, called Arctic Power, which will in turn lobby Congress and unleash a nationwide public relations campaign backing oil drilling in the tundra. 

Throughout the campaign, Bush constantly reminded rural voters that he owned a ranch and sympathized with the plight of the small farmer. This was prefabbed pabulum for the rural folks and Bush, aside from his antipathy for the estate tax, apparently didn’t mean a word of it. In early March, family farm groups, already staggering from give-away trade pacts, chronically depressed prices and relentless consolidation, were dealt another blow when Veneman invalidated a referendum approved last year by farmers to end a mandatory promotional program they said was corrupt. 

Most of the money from the program funds the National Pork Producers Council, the trade association for the big pork processors that are putting small farmers out of business. The director of the council, Al Tank, served on Bush’s agriculture transition team. The farmers charged that their own money was being used against them to pursue ecologically destructive and price-depressing factory hog farms. The vote proved that we don’t want money going out of our pockets for factory farms and corporate control anymore,” says Roger Allison, of the Missouri Farm Crisis Center. But now they’ve sabotaged it, declaring war on the family farm and on democracy.” 

Meanwhile, under the mantra of states’ rights, the USDA and EPA are moving to ease pollution rules on big industrial farms and feedlots. In Oregon, for example, dairy and beef cattle from factory ranches generate about 7.5 million tons of manure a year, much of it ending up in streams and rivers. In 1998, the EPA found that 18 of the large ranches were violating the meager requirements of the Clean Water Act and began handing out fines and issuing corrective orders. Now the Republican members of the Oregon congressional delegation are asking Whitman and Veneman to withdraw the fines, halt inspections and turn enforcement over to the state. 

A similar move is afoot in Ohio, where the Farm Bureau and other lobbyists for agribusiness are telling Whitman to make EPA inspectors stay out the Midwest and allow state agriculture departments (not even the environmental agencies) to decide how much pollution the meat factories can release into streams and rivers. Each state knows how to handle their situation better than the feds,” says Ohio Farm Bureau president Terry McClure, who notes he was encouraged by Bush and Whitman’s receptiveness to the idea. 

This is another key element of the Bush approach: Using code words such as state primacy,” local control” and bottom-up planning,” the Bush environmental team is seeking to swiftly devolve regulatory power from federal to state and local authorities – bodies over which industry enjoys an even tighter stranglehold than they do over the feds. 

Over at the EPA, Christie Todd Whitman has lived a double life. On the outside, she has sounded like a perkier version of her predecessor, Carol Browner. Whitman bragged about getting the once-taboo words global warming” into Bush’s first address to Congress, and publicly chafed about the decision to strip federal funding from groups that advocate abortion overseas. During a trip to Trieste, Italy for a G‑8 meeting, Whitman also told European environmental ministers that the Bush administration, unlike Clinton/​Gore, would pursue mandatory caps on carbon dioxide emissions. Whitman yielded glowing press coverage citing her courage and feisty independence. 

Then the plank was sawed off behind her. Bush announced that there would be no carbon caps and told Whitman to stop referring to carbon dioxide as a pollutant.” Cheney was rolled out of the hospital in time to do damage control, saying that Whitman had merely been a good soldier” attempting to defend a misguided” policy. Then Whitman herself was ushered forward to make a public retraction. She cited the looming energy crisis as the rationale for continued U.S. intransigence on the build-up of greenhouse gasses. 

The whole thing looked silly and amateurish, but it was a calculated maneuver. The Bush strategy is to hype up the California power crunch into a national energy emergency, which they intend to use to advance their agenda on multiple fronts: increased drilling and exploration, suspensions of clean air rules, new tax credits for oil and gas companies, and more subsidies for nuclear power. The carbon dioxide retreat served as a kind of public sacrifice to illustrate their seriousness. 

Less widely reported is Whitman’s move to reduce existing air quality standards in the Great Lakes region. On March 18, Whitman announced that the EPA would relax pollution rules for gasoline in Chicago and Milwaukee. Whitman said the move was needed in order to keep gas prices from spiking” this summer. Of course, this merely creates another incentive for the oil companies to price gouge and offer up environmental regulations as a handy scapegoat. 

Just how much of all this will the Bush team be able to get away with? Well, that depends on how well they execute what Gale Norton calls the collaboration” approach, getting a few Democrats and one or two mainstream environmental groups to sign off an end-run around federal laws and regulations. It has already borne fruit. The carbon cap retreat was praised by three top Democrats: West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd, the coal companies’ one-man praetorian guard, Louisiana’s John Breaux, the dark knight of the oil lobby, and Michigan Rep. John Dingell, loyal servant of the Detroit automakers. Of course, there’s nothing innovative here. With Clinton, this was known as triangulation. The new fusion politics looks a lot like the old variety. 

Cheney’s decision to steamroll through the Bush environmental agenda within the first 100 days may yet backfire. Handing out gifts to chemical companies, big oil, strip mining outfits, nuclear power and coal companies all in a month stinks of overkill. The decision to roll back newly imposed limits on arsenic levels in drinking water may prove to be a fatal miscalculation. Sure, there’s a double standard. After all, Clinton waited eight years to impose the rule and Bush is taking the heat from the press and a newly energized environmental movement for junking it before it even went into effect. The fuss over the carbon dioxide caps represents a similar exercise in hypocrisy. But that defines the new reality: Bush will be held to a higher standard on these matters than Clinton. Each move to erode environmental regulations will be countered by acrid attacks from the likes of the Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society. And the big greens, so often tongue-tied by Clinton, are top-notch at flaying Republicans. 

But the more insidious problem for the Bush gang may reside within their own party. What the Republican leadership, in a blind fervor to repay its corporate underwriters, ignores at its peril is the growing sentiment toward environmental protection within the rank-and-file of their own party. Already, four Republican senators – Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, James Jeffords of Vermont, and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine – have chided some of the moves as misguided and dangerous for the future political health of the party. It took nearly four years to hear similar caveats about Clinton from Democrats. 

Polls show that even Republicans oppose drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and loosening drinking water standards, and that more than 50 percent support strengthening laws that have long been bugaboos of the industrial right-wing, such as the Clean Air and Endangered Species acts. The evidence for this can be seen in the growth of a new environmental group that is already putting George Bush’s feet to the fire: Republicans for Environmental Protection. These really are Republicans and hardcore environmentalists. And they are gaining more clout inside the party with each Bush misstep. We’re really disappointed in the president,” says Martha Marks, president of Republicans for Environmental Protection. Obviously, we were trusting he would live up to his campaign promise, but it seems like the wrong forces or the anti-environmental forces inside his administration are prevailing. But we’ve seen a strong spike upward in membership after the Norton nomination, and it really hasn’t stopped. We’ve had several hundred more members sign up in the last two months. Maybe as many as 1,000.”

Jeffrey St. Clair is a contributing editor of In These Times and co-editor of the investigative newsletter Counterpunch. He is co-author of A Pocket Guide to Environmental Bad Guys, White Out: The CIA, Drugs and the Press and Al Gore: A Users Manual. He lives in Oregon City, Oregon.
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