GOP warms up to green issues: Candidates link environment to security, economy
By Deb Price and Jim Lynch
The Detroit News
Published December 20, 2007
Frank Lautner, an avid bird watcher from Clinton Township, is troubled by the dwindling number of birds he finds on his frequent bird-watching outings.
Lautner, who says he's likely to vote in Michigan's presidential primary, will be thinking about those birds when he decides for whom he'll vote Jan. 15.
"I can see the same kinds of birds, but the numbers are down quite a bit," Lautner said. "The positions of candidates on environmental issues really matter to me."
In addition to ailing wetlands, Lautner worries about other threats to the Great Lakes, such as global warming, which some scientists warn could lower lake levels, as well as invasive species and sewage pipe overflows.
While polls in Michigan and nationally show that voters rank the environment far below Iraq, the economy and health care as their top concerns, the Iraq war, sky-high gas prices and devastating weather like Hurricane Katrina and wildfires out West have prompted voters -- and the presidential candidates -- to think of environmental issues more broadly, as an integral part of the GOP standbys of national security and job creation.
At the recent debate in Iowa, for example, Mitt Romney said that reducing greenhouse gases can be done in ways "that help both the environment and the economy and national security."
Issues are intertwined
Great Lakes regional director Andy Buchsbaum of the National Wildlife Federation points to such comments by the candidates in explaining what he and others see as a growing interest in environmental issues by Republicans.
"The Great Lakes, climate change, solar and wind power, these have become economic and security issues," Buchsbaum says.
"If a candidate wants to be competitive here in Michigan, he or she has to address global warming and cleaning up the Great Lakes because voters here now see those issues as tied to tourism dollars, new high-paying 'green' jobs, and national security."
The candidates differ on how serious global warming is, how clear it is that human activity causes it, and whether the feds should step in to curb emissions.
The News will probe the candidates' positions on auto emissions in an upcoming report.
Only Sen. John McCain and Mike Huckabee have called for government action to reduce carbon emissions, the League of Conservation Voters notes. In its presidential voters guide, the League says that other than McCain "None of the other Republican candidates have offered any kind of comprehensive plan to address global warming."
The League says McCain stands out in the Republican field on global warming, noting he is "the only candidate to make global warming a part of his campaign agenda and to regularly address it on the campaign trail."
In 2003, McCain introduced the first bill in the Senate to try to reduce global warming and advocates cutting carbon emissions 65 percent by 2050.
The nonpartisan group also praises Mike Huckabee for promising that the first thing he'd do as president is deliver a plan to Congress on how to make the U.S. energy independent.
On global warming, he advocates a cap-and-trade system in which businesses buy and sell credits to meet federal standards on greenhouse emissions.
Encouraging alternative fuels
Like McCain and Huckabee, the other Republican presidential candidates have talked about the need to wean the United States from politically unstable countries' foreign oil -- and the bonus of U.S. businesses becoming the world's leader on alternative fuel technology.
Texas congressman Ron Paul, for example, sponsors legislation to encourage development of solar and wind energy power.
But the Republicans are less of a single mind over whether Yucca Mountain is the best site for a national repository to store spent fuel that is piling up in temporary storage in Michigan and elsewhere. Nor do they agree on promising to sign the proposed $20 billion plan to restore the Great Lakes.
That bill is currently in Congress, and none of the four Republican presidential hopefuls serving in Congress -- Sen. McCain, and Reps. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, Duncan Hunter of California and Ron Paul -- is a co-sponsor.
U.S. Rep. Vern Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids, is part of a bipartisan push to get Democratic and Republican presidential candidates to sign a pledge to appoint a Cabinet-level aide to get the Great Lakes bill enacted.
No Republican has signed the pledge, although Sen. John McCain's campaign says he would sign the restoration legislation as president -- if he can swing it with other budget demands.
In response to questions from The News, Romney's campaign stopped short of saying he'd sign the Great Lakes restoration bill, but said the former Massachusetts governor considers cleanup "important for economic development and job creation in the region."
The Great Lakes restoration plan includes money to build a permanent barrier to prevent the voracious Asian carp from entering Lake Michigan, and to require oceangoing ships to filter invasive species from ballast water.
The invasive species issue isn't just of importance to wildlife, points out DTE Energy spokesman John Austerberry.
He notes it costs up to $400,000 a year to clean out one invasive species -- the zebra mussel -- from intake pipes of power plants along many of Michigan's rivers and all of the Great Lakes.
"At this stage, getting rid of (zebra mussels) has become like routine maintenance issue (and it gets) passed on to the customers," he said.
Meanwhile, Michigan awaits the next president to end the fight over a permanent storage site for radioactive leftovers.
Michigan has four commercial reactors producing waste, and its closed Big Rock Point Nuclear Plant near Charlevoix has eight 20-foot-tall casks of radioactive materials waiting for a home.
While the Republican field favors expanding the nation's reliance on nuclear power, the candidates are split over whether Yucca Mountain, in Nevada should be the nation's radioactive waste dump.
McCain, Tancredo and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson support the site. Giuliani and Romney offer mixed messages, saying they are open to it but have concerns. Paul opposes it completely, citing a state's right not to be forced to take another state's wastes.
And the next president could jumpstart the anemic Superfund and other federal toxic-waste cleanup programs to provide Michigan with more money to decontaminate the 65 highly polluted sites on the national Superfund priority list and clean up petroleum that leaked from 9,000 underground gasoline tanks.
"The federal fund designed to provide money to clean up leaking underground storage tanks contains more than $2.5 billion, which is not being tapped. Michigan desperately needs more money to deal with tank leaks," said Andrew Hogarth, chief of the remediation and redevelopment division of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
In requests from The News, only McCain's team replied that the candidate wants the federal government to have a vigorous role in helping states deal with the legacy of industrial hazardous pollution.
Despite coming from a water-thirsty state, McCain is also the only Republican who said he'd sign the proposal to ban water diversion from the Great Lakes.
Charter boat captain Bill Duckwall of Marquette, an undecided Republican voter, said he's more likely to support a candidate in the Republican primary who says he'd ban water diversions.
"Hey, those hot states don't give me their sunshine, so why should they get our water?" asks Duckwall. "With the global warming problem, we certainly don't want to give our water away."
You can reach Deb Price at email@example.com or (202) 662-8736.