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Oil Slick George and the Environment

George W. Bush says it will take years.

He says there will be many casualties.

He says it will be costly for Americans.

The president was probably referring to the nation’s undeclared war against Afghanistan, but since he’s often confused he could also have been talking about his administration’s war against the environment. No one expected the Bush-Cheney Oil-Executive-Millionaire ticket to cozy up to the Sierra Club. But, neither did they think the administration would roll back the environmental heritage that Progressive Republican Teddy Roosevelt and a succession of presidents had fought to create and maintain.

We now know that Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham with Vice-President Dick Cheney and the morally-corrupt Enron Corp. directed the Administration’s energy policy. But, there are others in the Bush administration who believe in tearing up the environment and disturbing the wildlife to provide for immediate gratification to the coal, oil, and mining industries.

Secretary of the interior Gale Norton was a lawyer and lobbyist for numerous clients that favored weaker governmental controls on environmental protection and stronger private rights. Norton believes in expanding hunting, mining, and use of gas-spewing off-road vehicles on federal lands.

Deputy Secretary Steve Griles, a strong advocate of off-shore oil drilling, was a lobbyist for coal and oil companies. William Myers, Interior’s solicitor, a former employee of a cattleman’s association, advocates the use of public land for cattle grazing and opposes most environmental measures in the national parks.

Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman opposes what she believes are “unnecessary and burdensome” federal environmental rules.

Mark Rey, her undersecretary, is an advocate for the timber industry.

Attorney General John Ashcroft, while a U.S. senator, consistently voted against environmental protections. Assistant Attorney General Thomas Sansonetti, who had also served under George Bush the Elder, was a coal company lobbyist.

A year after her appointment to head the Environmental Protection Agency, former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman joked that she once thought she was on Bush’s short list to be vice-president, but later realized she was on the short list of Republicans who were environment-friendly. In the past year she has clashed with Bush several times about his environmental plans. But, she’s still a loyal cabinet appointee. Under a Bush-Cheney set of directives, EPA has reduced its enforcement mission, favoring the euphemistic “voluntary compliance” policy, and has postponed work on Clean Air and Clean Water acts.

One of the first things Bush himself did after becoming president was to order a comprehensive six-month review, and hoped-for reversal, of Bill Clinton’s proclamations in June 2000 to designate four national monuments covering 540,000 acres. At the time, Vice-President Al Gore, the administration’s conscience on environmental issues, declared, “We act today so that years from now Americans will still be able to paddle free-flowing waters and hike pristine peaks, enjoying these extraordinary stretches of our national heritage.” Bush’s belief is that almost all of the 250 million acres under jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management should be available to be stripped of their resources.

Bush has now targeted Yellowstone National Park by ordering a “review” of the Clinton administration’s ban on snowmobiles and non-essential roads. “The presence of hundreds of snowmobiles at one time has disturbed the wildlife and upset the balance of nature,” says Andrea Lococo, Rocky Mountain coordinator for Fund for Animals. Affected primarily are the 4,200 bison which are using the groomed snowmobile roads to leave the park. Montana officials have slaughtered about 3,000 bison as soon as they left the park’s sanctuary, claiming they fear the spread of brucellosis to cattle. However, there is no evidence, says Lococo, that bison are infecting cattle. If there was any possible transmittal of brucellosis, it would come only from the discarded afterbirth. But, Montana’s slaughter-happy livestock officials, unable to distinguish testes from teats, are also slaughtering bulls.

Also affected by the Bush policies are wolves, bears, and park rangers. The return of a small number of wolves into Yellowstone was vigorously opposed by Montana and Wyoming ranchers. With fewer bison deaths from natural causes in the park, wolves and bears now have a diminished food source. The National Park Service, which had favored a ban on recreational snowmobiles, is now faced by thousands of snowmobilers illegally crossing the Park’s borders. Snowmobilers, says Lococo, “line up at the borders, spewing gas fumes that have made the rangers ill.”

In other environmental policies, Bush reversed himself on a campaign pledge to reduce acceptable levels of carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. But, when he decided that higher levels of arsenic and other toxins in drinking water was just good public policy, the public outrage forced him to reverse that judgment. Score: Carbon Dioxide emissions 1; arsenic, after a fight, 0.

Bush eliminated the tax upon the oil and chemical industries that paid for the clean up of SuperFund toxic waste sites; the new cost will be borne not by the polluters but by the public. He has repeatedly shown he favors increased logging and mining on public lands, and has pushed for oil companies to be allowed to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

To justify environmental destruction and upsetting a balance of nature, Bush claims the drilling of oil is a national security concern. The 600,000 barrels of oil a day that might be refined from Alaska is less than five percent of what the U.S. currently imports. There are no substantial plans to seek alternative energy sources, except for a policy to pay for development of clean energy sources only with funds generated from oil drilling in Alaska. Even the oil companies don’t believe putting rigs and refineries along the Alaskan coast will be cost-effective. But, there is a gunslinger’s mentality at work in Alaska. Opening up the refuge would require hundreds of miles of roads to be built, all of them not necessarily for the transport of equipment and personnel but for hunters to get that elusive caribou–maybe even to mount a seal.

For more than a decade, Bill Clinton’s venomous critics called him “Slick Willie.” Perhaps Americans will soon realize that the Bush administration legacy for our environmental heritage was engineered by “Oil Slick George.”

Walt Brasch’s latest book is The Joy of Sax: America During the Bill Clinton Era. Brasch, a former newspaper reporter and editor, is professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University. He can be reached at:

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Walter Brasch is an award-winning social issues journalist. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an analysis of the history, economics, and politics of fracking, as well as its environmental and health effects.

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