On the Environment, Hold Our Ground
and Look to the Future
By Rena Steinzor
Center for American Progress
Published March 16th, 2005
Asked about his environmental record during the second
presidential debate this fall, President Bush rattled
off a series of well focus-grouped phrases – “clean coal,”
“clear skies,” and “mak[ing] sure our forests aren’t vulnerable
to forest fires” – and touted himself as a “good steward
of the land.” The rhetoric ignored reality: during the
president’s first term, the administration took a dive
on global climate change, flung open wilderness areas
to drilling and logging, weakened air and water pollution
standards, starved cleanup and enforcement programs, and
in a variety of other ways cast its lot with polluters
instead of the environment and public health.
Indeed, the bad environmental decisions made over the
last four years – as well as those in the pipeline – will
haunt our children and grandchildren. And maddeningly,
the environment wasn’t really even an issue on voters’
radar screens this November. Terrorism, Iraq, and the
economy – important issues, to be sure – eclipsed concerns
about clean air and water and the preservation of nature.
So what to do? How do we expose empty rhetoric and make
the environment a voting issue? How do we reverse the
administration’s hostility to the environment and public
health? What should progressives do to reframe the debate
over the environment?
My colleagues at the Center for Progressive Regulation
and I think progressives have at least three specific
challenges ahead: First, we must understand how the Bush
administration’s acts and omissions undermine environmental
quality, and insist on necessary institutional changes
that will produce effective controls on pollution and
the industries that cause it. Second, we must remind Americans
of the harm that environmental damage is doing to our
quality-of-life. And third, we must offer new proposals
grounded in sound environmental values.
The Bush Agenda
Bush political appointees, many of them former industry
lawyers and lobbyists, have pushed regulatory changes
that undercut our bedrock environmental laws. In its recent
proposal to “protect” Americans from mercury poisoning,
for example, the administration offers a plan to allow
polluters to trade pollution credits, thus practically
guaranteeing mercury “hotspots” in various pockets of
the country where mercury pollution swells far beyond
currently unacceptable levels. (Sorry, Great Lakes region,
but you lose the administration’s mercury lottery. See
Professor Catherine O’Neill’s recent article for an explanation.)
Lost in the debate over the audacity of the administration’s
plan is a large legal problem: the Clean Air Act requires
the Environmental Protection Agency to adopt the strongest
possible controls that are technologically feasible, and
this doesn’t mean pollution-credit trading. The administration
simply isn’t following the law.
Another approach has been to take the environmental cops
off the beat, turning the EPA into a shadow of its former
self. The administration has simply ratcheted down enforcement
efforts through budget cuts and inactivity, with the result
that it’s easier to get away with illegally polluting
the nation’s air and water.
The administration has also used a number of regulatory
tricks to accomplish its anti-environmental goals. For
example, the Office of Management and Budget has grossly
stacked cost-benefit analysis against environmental regulations,
so that benefits of cleaning or preventing pollution are
badly understated and costs badly overstated. By contrast,
when it comes to regulatory proposals to weaken protections,
the administration has sometimes simply skipped the cost-benefit
analysis to speed the process.
Progressives won passage of environmental laws in the
1970s by pointing to the harm pollution was doing. We
need to follow that same approach today, even if the harm
is less photogenic than fire on the Cuyahoga River and
barrels of toxic chemicals at Love Canal.
For example, when local governments issue Code Red warnings
for smog, we shouldn’t miss the opportunity to remind
our fellow citizens that smog isn’t a naturally forming
weather condition! It comes from specific industrial processes,
and as a community and a nation, we have made the choice
to permit it – a choice we need to revisit.
Another example: toxic cleanups. Conservatives in Congress
have all but strangled Superfund, and with it the resources
for cleaning up a long list of sites where industry has
dumped or spilled toxic chemicals. At one such Superfund
site near Baton Rouge, called Devil’s Swamp Lake, EPA
and industry are dragging their feet on cleaning up a
body of water from which a large, mostly minority, local
population catches fish that are a staple of the local
diet. Congress isn’t likely to move on Superfund anytime
soon, but my colleagues at the Center for Progressive
Regulation together with local environmental activists
are raising a stink about the toxic pollution by calling
for the polluting industries to buy groceries for affected
families until they’ve cleaned up the lake. They may not
do it, but they’ve had to defend themselves in the media.
That’s a small example of how we need to force industry
and its allies to confront the real harm of their pollution.
A New Progressive Agenda for Public Health and the Environment
In an earlier piece on this website, my colleague Christopher
Schroeder and I sketched out a number of next-generation
environmental proposals drawn from the Center for Progressive
Regulation’s new book, A New Progressive Agenda for Public
Health and the Environment. We think such new proposals
are needed, not just to capture the public’s imagination,
but to account for all that has transpired on the environmental
front – good and bad – over the last decade. Here are
a few of our proposals in short form:
Congress should strengthen civil rights laws to block
the dirtiest manufacturing facilities from locating –
as they often do – in low-income and minority communities.
Congress should establish an impartial Bureau of Environmental
Statistics to fill data gaps on toxic chemicals, the health
effects of which we know appallingly little about.
Congress should require EPA to shine a spotlight on state
environmental agencies, some of which are doing a miserable
job enforcing environmental laws, through regular and
public evaluations of their performance.
Companies should be required to publicly disclose information
on pending enforcement actions or litigation. This disclosure
would help protect average stockholders and mutual fund
managers, who may take a hit when companies are found
liable for pollution.
It’s also important that our champions on Capitol Hill
not settle for half-a-loaf solutions. They’re going to
be under fire these next two years on a host of issues.
And when they speak and vote their values, and the values
of those who sent them to Washington, the congressional
majority and the White House spin machine will call them
obstructionist, out of step, and worst of all, liberal.
(Gasp.) After you’ve been called enough names loudly enough,
compromise gets mighty tempting. And that’s exactly what
the Bush administration and its allies in Congress and
industry have in mind – unless, that is, they can roll
over progressives altogether. In the current circumstances,
such compromises are the key ingredients for blatant environmental
rollbacks that are gallingly described as “reform.” It
would be hugely counterproductive to cut deals with the
White House on the president’s disastrous “Clear Skies”
bill, or on energy legislation that would sacrifice the
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, or on feel-good
but do-nothing initiatives on any of a host of environmental
issues. The goal should be to stop the White House, whenever
possible, from doing damage. And if that fails, at the
very least, the public should know the stakes.
Long after George W. Bush has retired to his ranch in
Crawford, Texas, we’ll be living with the environmental
choices made these next four years. If we stick to our
guns, we’ll have a chance to limit the damage, and even
lay the groundwork for future victories.
Rena Steinzor is a professor of law at the University
of Maryland School of Law, and a member scholar of the
Center for Progressive Regulation (CPR). She and Professor
Christopher H. Schroeder (Duke University School of Law)
are the editors of CPR’s latest book, A New Progressive
Agenda for Public Health and the Environment, a collaboration
of 20 of the organization’s scholars from around the nation.