How Green Became the Color of Money

“Smoke Screens”

How is power really leveraged in Washington? Read Bob Packwood’s diaries. The private record of this disgraced Oregon senator and top recipient of campaign contributions from the timber industry from 1985 to 1995 tells the story.

Packwood told the chief lobbyist for the National Lumber Wholesalers Association that if the Lumber Wholesalers wanted him to gut the Endangered Species Act, a hefty contribution was needed. Money duly flowed into Packwood’s campaign treasury—and he promptly began attacking the spotted owl.

Packwood was a Republican. Democrats are no different. The leading recipient in the House of timber industry money during that same period was Norm Dicks, the Democrat from Washington.

After the Republicans seized control of Congress at the end of 1994, green groups cried tremulously that foxes were in charge of the coup. They were partially right. At the Senate Interior Committee, chaired by Frank Murkowski of Alaska, Mark Rey became chief of staff. In his previous job, Rey was the top lobbyist for the American Forest and Paper Association, a $60 million a year lobbying giant. Under Rey’s watch the rewriting of the nation’s environmental laws began.

The green groups looked in desperation to the White House and the veto power which was all that stood between nature and the corporate predators. But the mighty veto sword remained in its scabbard. Clinton and his number two, Al Gore did nothing. The truth is that the fox had been in charge of the coop long before November of 1994.

Consider the career of Peter Knight. From 1979 to 1991, Knight worked as chief legislative aide for Senator Al Gore. Then he was tapped as chairman of the vice presidential campaign that designated Gore as electoral flypaper for the green vote. Knight duly became vice chairman in charge of personnel for the Clinton-Gore transition team, overseen by deal-maker extraordinaire Vernon Jordan, who counted among his innumerable obligations to the corporate sector the duties of lobbyist for the timber industry.

Peter Knight later emerged in shining armor as a lawyer-lobbyist for the Washington law firm of Wunder, Diefenderfer, Cannon and Thelen. Among this firm’s prime clients, with who Knight dealt on a regular basis, were Manville of asbestos fame, the solid waste giant Browning Ferris Industries and two of the nation’s largest forest products companies: Riverwood and Kimberly-Clark. The firm also represented the American Forest and Paper Association, where Mark Rey once toiled to make the wild woods safer for the chainsaw.

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Why was the reaction to the Clinton betrayals on the environment so subdued? Perhaps, like the Christian Right during the era of Bush, the Beltway greens felt there was nowhere else to turn. It was also clear that many lodged their hopes in Vice President Al Gore.

Gore’s reputation among the Washington press corps as environmentalist was largely based on his grandstanding at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and his tedious book Earth in the Balance, which stressed environmental discipline for the Third World, while neglecting to mention the corporate plunder of North America’s forests, river and mountains. (This is nothing new, of course. Heading the rush to the Amazon to protest deforestation in the late 1980s were many US politicians who would be aghast at the thought of curbing the depredations of timber companies operating in North America.)

Gore was a tireless promoter of free-market environmentalism, and the probable ghost-writer of Clinton’s noxious “the invisible hand has a green thumb” line. Beginning in the mid-1980s, Gore argued with increasing stridency that the bracing forces of market capitalism are potent curatives for the ecological entropy bearing down on the American environment. He was a passionate disciple of the gospel of efficiency, suffused with an inchoate technophilia.

Several of Gore’s protégés landed top posts in the Clinton administration, led by Carol Browner as EPA administrator. She had served as Gore’s legislative director from 1989 through 1991, before leaving to become the head of Florida’s Department of Environmental Quality. During her tenure in Florida, Browner took two particularly high profile stands. The first was a capitulation to sugar-growers and developers that allowed continued (though slightly filtered) dumping of pesticide-lace water into the Everglades. Second, Browner allowed the Walt Disney Company to destroy 800 acres of vital wetland habitat in central Florida, in exchange for a pledge from the eco-imagineers at DisneyWorld to “recreate” several thousand acres of wetlands, a feat which remains well beyond the capacities of modern science.

At EPA, Browner wasted little time in promoting ideas such as wetland trading, which during the Bush administration had met with howls of derision from the green lobby. One of her very first actions was to the put the imprimatur of the EPA on the Everglades deal she had brokered a few years earlier in Florida. This was a precedent of sorts: the first time the federal government had officially sanctioned the pollution of a national park.

Following in Gore’s footsteps, Browner initiated a campaign to reinvent the EPA by beginning to peel away “excessive environmental regulations.” The theme here echoes back to the late 1970s and the writings of Stephen Breyer, then an aide to Senator Ted Kennedy, who Clinton elevated in 1994 to a spot on the Supreme Court. Breyer postulated that federal regulations should be evaluated through two tests: risk assessment and cost/benefit analysis. The costs of pollution control would be weighed against the heavily-discounted benefits of human health and environmental quality—a certain recipe for more hazardous waste landfills, dioxin-belching incinerators and higher cancer rates.

Browner’s first target was the so-called Delaney Clause in the Food and Drug Act, which placed a strict prohibition against any detectable level of carcinogens in processed food. Though long the bane of the American Farm Bureau and the Chemical Manufacturer’s Association, the Delaney Clause remained inviolate, even through the Reagan and Bush years. Within months of taking office Browner announced that she felt this standard was too severe and moved to gut it. “We just don’t have unlimited financial resources to enforce all these measures and that can create a backlash,” Browner complained. “So we need to be realistic. We need the strongest possible standards, but we need flexibility in how to achieve those standards.”

* * *

When Bill Clinton journeyed to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in the fall of 1997 to preside over the creation of a new national monument, he quipped to reporters that it was disappointing there was so much fog in Arizona. He complained that he could hardly see across the giant chasm. That wasn’t fog, Mr. President, it was smog, clogging the air in one of the most remote and least populated areas in North America.

Grand Canyon is not the only national park threatened by bad air. In the parks of the California Sierras, King’s Canyon, Yosemite, and Sequoia, the toxic compounds in the air are stunting tree growth and killing alpine flora. Similar situations afflict Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, Mesa Verde in Colorado, and Quatico-Superior, the luscious country of forests and lakes on the Minnesota and Canadian border.

The situation in America’s cities was even worse. In places such as Salt Lake City and Minneapolis, more children were getting sick and more elderly people were dying from just breathing the air than at any time since the mid-1960s. Yet the deterioration of America’s air aroused little attention from the nation’s major media outlets or politicians.

Indeed, one of the least covered environmental stories of 1996 was the EPA’s announcement of new air pollution standards, proclaimed on a hot news day: the Friday after Thanksgiving, November 29, when most Americans were out shopping their way into the next holiday. On that Friday the EPA finally delivered its long-awaited new report on air quality, concentrating on smog and soot. The EPA’s last assessment was in 1987.

Industry had been awaiting the EPA report, which was ordered by a federal court in 1992 after a successful suit by the American Lung Association and a coalition of environmental groups, with considerable nervousness. And with good reason.

The story begins more than 20 years ago, in the policy battles preceding the passage of the Clean Air Act. Environmental policymakers and their scientific advisers were looking at two principal classes of compounds fueling the smog process: hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides.

Now the particles have come home to kill; our air has indeed become more toxic. No fewer than 185 different scientific studies all tend to that conclusion. Around 60,000 Americans die prematurely every year from respiratory illnesses and heart attacks linked to fine particle exposure. Some 250,000 children a year fall victim to aggravated asthma and other respiratory disorders caused by breathing toxic air, and the rate has increased by 11 percent since 1980. Respiratory problems are now the leading cause of hospital admissions of children. In all, nearly 74 million Americans are daily exposed to harmful levels of particulate air pollution.

In the 1970s the bureaucrats decided that it would be easier to control hydrocarbons as emitted in vapors of various solvents, including benzene, kerosene, gasoline, and partially burned fuel in automobile exhaust. Regulation would be a matter of controlling nozzles at the gas pumps, adding tailpipe catalysts to burn unused fuel, controlling the vapors in dry cleaning shops, and so forth.

This option seemed simpler than what would be required for even a minimal assault on oxides of nitrogen, generated by combustion of fuels such as coal, gas, kerosene, and crude oil, and controlled by lowering the temperature of combustion. Simpler maybe, but wrong. As a 1992 study sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences showed, two decades’ worth of stringent regulatory effort on hydrocarbons has yielded very little in the reduction of air pollution–certainly nothing like the progress predicted.

Industry’s nervousness at the EPA review of air quality stemmed from the fact that the early decision to go easy on oxides of nitrogen meant in effect giving a pass to the utilities, incineration plants, and oil refineries. But it’s clear now that if air quality is to be improved, these industries must be targeted.

The Geneva Steel Co. in Provo, Utah, provided one particularly vivid illustration. In the 1980s Dr. C. Arden Pope, an economist at Brigham Young University, got some students to start examining hospital admissions in Provo, cross-referencing them to levels of production at the Provo steel plant. The students’ findings were dramatic. When Geneva Steel was running full-tilt, admissions for lung ailments shot up, with the rate doubling for young children. The test had the virtue of extreme clarity. The area is inhabited by Mormons, who don’t smoke, and there is no other industry. The perpetrators were clear enough: tiny particles from the steel plant, one-thirtieth the diameter of a human hair. Pope’s study caused a huge commotion in the enviro-scientific and enviro-bureaucratic circles. Other studies confirmed the particularly lethal effect of fine particulates containing arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, vanadium, and zinc. The EPA’s previous focus had been on large particulates, such as road dust, fly ash, cement kiln dust, and other construction-related pollution.

In anticipation of the EPA report, industry lobbies–among them the Air Quality Standards Coalition spearheaded by Geneva Steel–tried to discredit the health data and science while simultaneously stressing that the utilities, steel plants, and refineries had done all they could do, and that once again the regulatory axe should fall on the motorist and the dry cleaner down the block. Speaking for the American Petroleum Institute, Paul Bailey said that fine particulate matter was no big deal and people seemed “actually to adapt to it.” Speaking for the Automobile Manufacturers, Gerald Esper said that the publicity over increased deaths caused by exposure to fine particulates was exaggerated because “many of the deaths are of elderly people and others who are sick who would have died within days anyway.”

By late summer in 1997, the 1,500 page report was tossed nervously around the government, from the EPA to OMB and through Al Gore’s office at the White House. The EPA’s scientists recommended that standards on ozone and fine particulates be drastically tightened. Carol Browner had given herself bureaucratic cover by establishing a review group of industry scientists. The latter group recommended far more modest tightening of the standards. Browner ended up splitting the difference between the two. As a result, the EPA estimated that somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 people will continue to die each year from breathing toxic air.

To be continued.

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book, Born Under a Bad Sky, is published by AK Press / CounterPunch books. He can be reached at:

This essay is excerpted from the forthcoming book GreenScare: the New War on Environmentalism by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR and Joshua Frank.

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Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3