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Environmentalists prepare for Bush's agenda
House GOP leaders signal interest in reviving Arctic drilling, increasing selective logging in fire zones
Joan Lowy
Scripps Howard News Service

11/07/2002

Prospects for controversial environmental proposals backed by the Bush administration -- ranging from drilling for oil in the Arctic to more logging in national forests -- are much brighter in light of the Republican takeover of the Senate.

Environmentalists are bracing for "the biggest attack on national environmental laws since the Gingrich Congress in 1995," said Phil Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, an environmental advocacy group.

"Every computer in every corporate lobbyist's office in this town is clicking away today sending memos to the corporate home office, 'We have the White House, the House and the Senate, but we may not have them after 2004. One of the things we want is relief from federal environmental laws,'" Clapp said.

House Republican leaders signaled Wednesday that they would like to revive a major energy bill -- one of the administration's top legislative priorities -- that has been languishing because of differences between Senate Democrats and House Republicans over energy industry tax breaks, drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and a requirement that electric utilities increase the use of renewable energy, among other issues.

Looking toward next year, Republicans are also likely to revive an administration proposal to reduce the risk of wildfires in national forests by increasing selective logging. Critics say the plan is a giveaway to the timber industry.

Bush's "clear skies" initiative to reduce air pollution from electric power plants, effectively blocked by Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., the current environment committee chairman, is also likely to be revived.

Jeffords and Senate Democrats opposed the bill because it didn't reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the chief greenhouse gas responsible for global warming. Democrats and environmentalists also criticized the Bush bill for making too little effort to reduce dangerous mercury emissions. Utility companies have said reducing mercury emissions would be too expensive and too difficult.

Beyond the administration's immediate legislative proposals, the shift in control of the Senate means it will be far more difficult for Democrats to act as a check on controversial administration efforts to reinterpret the way federal environmental laws are applied.

For example, Jeffords, who caucuses with the Democrats, has used his committee's subpoena power to pressure the Environmental Protection Agency to justify a new rule related to power plant emissions that the agency is expected to unveil later this month. Environmentalists charge the rule would weaken the Clean Air Act.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, has been investigating industry influence on the administration's environmental decision-making across the board.

Replacing Jeffords as environment committee chairman will be Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., a longtime champion of the oil industry. Jeffords has a 75 percent voting score from the League of Conservation Voters. Inhofe's rating is zero.

Conservative activists and industry lobbyists are delighted with the changeover. Fred Smith, president of the industry-oriented Competitive Enterprise Institute, predicted a fundamental shift in the substance of debate on environmental issues within the Senate.

With Inhofe as panel chairman, "I think we're going to see a lot more decentralization (of environmental regulation)," Smith said. "There will be a willingness to allow states to vary or waive federal standards" and to give states "more flexibility" in enforcing environmental protection laws.

But Jerry Taylor, natural resources director of the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank, cautioned that the Republicans' slim majority and the Democrats' ability to block most legislative proposals means relatively few GOP initiatives on the environment may actually pass.

"I don't see it making that much of a difference," Taylor said. "As long as the Democrats have a strong environmentalist core in their voter base, they will have ample incentive to filibuster things like drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge."

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