George Bush’s new administration, and its supporters controlling Congress, are setting out to dismantle three decades of US environmental protection.
In little over a month since his re-election, they have announced that they will comprehensively rewrite three of the country’s most important environmental laws, open up vast new areas for oil and gas drilling, and reshape the official Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
They say that the election gave them a mandate for the measures – which, ironically, will overturn a legislative system originally established by the Republican Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford – even though Mr Bush went out of his way to avoid emphasising his environmental plans during his campaign.
“The election was a validation of the philosophy and the agenda,” said Mike Leavitt, the Bush-appointed head of the EPA. He points out that over a third of the agency’s staff will become eligible for retirement over the President’s four-year term, enabling him to fill it with people lenient to polluters.
The administration’s first priority is the controversial plan to open up the Arctic Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling. Two years ago the Senate defeated plans to exploit the refuge – home to caribou, polar bears , musk oxen and millions of migratory birds – by 52 votes to 48.
But with the election of four Republican senators in favour of the drilling, and the disappearance of one who opposed it, the administration now has the votes forvictory.
It plans to follow with an energy bill – also defeated in the last Congress – which would investigate vast new tracts for exploitation for oil and gas. It will also encourage the building of nuclear power stations, halted since the 1979 Three Mile Island accident.
Far more radical measures are also under way. Joe Barton, the Texas Republican chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who is to help push through the energy bill, has also announced a comprehensive review of the Clean Air Act, one of the world’s most successful environmental laws.
Environmentalists predict the emasculation of the Act, which has cut air pollution across the country by more than half over the last 30 years. Not to be outdone, the Republican chairman of the House Resources Committee, Richard Pombo, has announced a review of the Endangered Species Act, for the protection of wildlife. The law has been the main obstacle to the felling of much of the US’s remaining endangered rain forest. And in a third assault, Congressional leaders have also announced an attack on the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires details of the environmental effects of major developments before they proceed.
Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, said last week that the previous Bush administration had largely contented itself with weakening environmental legislation, but the new one intended to go much further. He added: “We will now see an assault on the law which will set the US in the direction of becoming a Third World country in terms of environmental protection.”
The environmentalists point out that almost every local referendum on environmental issues carried out on election day achieved a green majority.
They recall the fate of the assault on environmental law – headed by the former Congressional Speaker, Newt Gingrich, in the mid 1990s – which caused such opposition that Congress enacted tough new green legislation.