Bush Saddles Up
“I’m both a compassionate conservative and a passionate conservationist,” pronounced Interior Secretary Gale Norton in late February 2001, during a speech at Bob Packwood’s Dorchester Conference, an annual confab on the Oregon Coast for western Republicans. “There are better approaches than top-down, Washington-based decision-making to protect our environment,” she said. “I believe there are good ideas all over America. I respectfully disagree with those who say that to be good stewards of our national treasures, we must be willing to sacrifice jobs.
Norton didn’t elaborate on what she meant by this. She didn’t unveil her agenda at Interior, other than to say that she believed Snake River Chinook salmon could be saved without tearing down the four dams that have brought them to the brink of extinction and that the oil that lies under the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could be exhumed without so much as a stain on the tundra. But the people in the audience got her drift.
“When you compare Gale to Bruce Babbitt, you know that help is on the way,” said Paulette Pyle, a lobbyist for pesticide and agribusiness concerns.
Take those national monuments created during the closing hours of Clintontime. Many right-wingers and latter-day Sagebrush Rebels wanted Norton to get rid of them with a stroke of the pen. But that’s not Norton’s style. As she told The Washington Post, “I’m not Jim Watt. I’ve matured.” Instead, Norton decided to leave the designations in place, but she signaled that it might be okay to explore for oil or coal inside them. That’s how you can be “a good steward of our national treasures” without “sacrificing jobs.” This cynical maneuver set the template for the Bush approach to natural resource policy.
The early read on Norton was that she is a lot smarter and more politically savvy than her mentor James Watt. Norton understood what many of the Republican ultras failed to notice: the national monument designations were mainly political fluff that imposed few real restrictions on commercial activities inside the boundaries.
Bush backed up Norton’s nefarious scheme. “There are parts of the monument lands where we can explore without affecting the overall environment,” mumbled Bush in an interview with the Denver Post. “It depends upon the cost-benefit ratio. There are some monuments where the land is so widespread, they just encompass as much as possible. And the integral part, the precious part, so to speak will not be despoiled. There’s a mentality that says you can’t explore and protect land. We’re going to change the attitude. You can explore and protect land.”
It was easy to see where this kind of boasting was headed. The Bush administration advanced on multiple fronts, aimed at forcing the environmental community to blink and sign-off on a deal. Perhaps protection of the national monuments in exchange for limited exploration of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Or vice versa. Some believed that the Bush inner circle (namely Cheney and Norton) were less anxious to drill in ANWR than it was to resurrect old Reagan era schemes involving the Rocky Mountain Front, the eastern flank of the mighty range running from north of Denver through Wyoming and Montana. Oil, coal, shale oil, and, if you believed the oil industry’s press releases, the largest trove of natural gas on the continent.
Here’s another example of the Norton two-step. Norton offered as proof of her green bona fides a plan to boost the budget of Land and Water Conservation Fund, a federal trust account that is used to purchase threatened lands with unique natural values. To the uninitiated this sounded like a laudable endeavor. After all, under past Republican administrations the billion-dollar LWCF had lain moribund: either unused because of rightwing opposition or juggled around in order to help conceal the true size of the federal deficit.
But the kicker was that the LWCF is not financed through the general fund but by (surprise!) royalties from oil drilling on federal lands and the Outer Continental Shelf. So any hike in LWCF funding would necessarily involve an increase in public lands oil leases, an unyielding obsession of the Bush team.
There was another hitch. Norton adored the LWCF because it fit snugly into her free-market environmentalism mantra, which dictated that private property rights are sacred and not to be trampled upon by imperious federal regulations, such as the Endangered Species Act or Clean Water Act. According to her neo-Lockeian worldview, if the federal government wanted to regulate use of private lands it should pay compensation or simply buy the property out right. Of course, this kind of cash-box conservationism spells a death knell for many environmental laws and, if taken to its logical extreme, was also a surefire way to bankrupt the federal treasury faster than the Bush tax cuts.
One of Norton’s early missteps was her pick for the number-two position at Interior: Steven Griles, an oil and mining industry lobbyist. Griles was one of those Washington political poltergeists who scurries back and forth between the government and private sector wreaking havoc for his cronies in the mining and oil industries. Under Reagan, Griles toiled in several different slots in the Interior Department, most deviously at the Office of Surface Mining, where he strove to obstruct any limits on the machinations of big coal. His tenure there, highlighted by an unflinching defense of even the most rapacious forms of strip mining, has earned him the lifelong enmity of anti-mining activists from Arizona to West Virginia.
For as much as the anti-federal government crowd excoriates Washington as a kind of post-modern Babylon, once they’ve settled inside the Beltway, few of them seem to return to their homesteads in the hinterlands even after their careers as so-called public servants have expired. Griles, for instance, cashed in on his experience at manipulating the government in the service of industry by becoming a top corporate lobbyist at the coyly named National Environmental Strategies.
In tapping Griles, Norton snubbed Dick Cheney’s flyfishing buddy John Turner, thought to be the frontrunner for the post. Turner, who lives near Cheney in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, served as director of the Fish and Wildlife Service during Bush I. Back then he was viewed as something of a moderate in a Department headed by the zany Manuel Lujan, who once opined that perhaps some species, like the spotted owl, simply weren’t equipped to handle the rigors of life in the modern world and should be allowed to gracefully enter the oblivion of extinction. Ultimately, Turner’s nomination was sabotaged by Wise Use zealots and their congressional stooges, most notably Senator Larry Craig, who chafed at his reluctance to openly defy the edicts of the Endangered Species Act.
To get a better grip on where the Bush crowd was going, it was necessary to look into some of the more remote corners of the Administration, where much of the real dirty work was hatched and carried out. Take the decidedly unalluring Office of Management and Budget. OMB spearheaded a stealth attack on environmental regulations, much as it did during the previous Bush Administration. “What regulations Bush didn’t kill outright, they simply starved to death for lack of funds,” said Larry Tuttle, director of the Portland-based Citizens for Environment Equity.
One of the more obscure outposts at OMB was the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. It’s the equivalent of a Star Chamber for corporations seeking relief from pesky environmental and safety standards. To head this outfit, which one Senate staffer dubbed “the office of corporate ombudsman,” Bush named John Graham, a long-time hired gun for polluting industries. Graham now runs the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, which has received millions in financial aid from dozens of oil, timber, chemical and mining companies, including: ARCO, Boise-Cascade, BP, Chemical Manufacturer’s Association, Chlorine Chemistry Council, DuPont, Electric Power Research Institute, General Motors, Monsanto, National Association of Home Builders, and Waste Management.
Graham’s routine was to solicit money from big corporations facing litigation or legislation to curb shoddy, toxic or dangerous business practices. He then writes a book, paper or article debunking the supposed dangers of the corporate misbehavior, citing “risk analysis” studies showing that the costs to the company of correcting the problem far outweigh the risk to the public.
For example, according to a report by Public Citizen, in 1991 Graham sought money for his center from Philip Morris. Five months later, Graham asked the tobacco company to review a chapter in his book on second-hand some. Since then Philip Morris has repeatedly cited Graham’s work t undermine the EPA’s efforts to regulate second-hand smoke.
Here’s another example: Graham served on the EPA’s dioxin review board, where in 2000 he put forward the inane theory that small doses of dioxin might actually help prevent certain forms of cancer and urged the EPA to include in its profile of the deadly chemical a note stating that is was “an anti-carcinogen.” Had Graham prevailed, this absurd footnote would have made it extremely difficult for EPA to hold the line on dioxin emissions.
“A person with such disdain for public priorities should not be given a last-ditch veto over the will of the public,” warns Joan Claybrook, director of Public Citizen. “Installing an industry –funded flack in such a crucial position would harm the public for generations.”
Despite toiling for biotech companies and the pesticide-happy agribusiness giants of California’s Central Valley, Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman was thought by many liberal pundits to be something of a beacon of hope inside the Bush cabinet. She waltzed through her confirmation hearings and wasn’t even confronted with a single nagging question on her plans for the largest and, frequently the most deviant, agency in the Agriculture Department, the US Forest Service. But only two months into her tenure, things over at the Agriculture Department began to look very bleak indeed.
Before Clinton left office, the US Forest Service completed its much-ballyhooed plan for roadless areas on national forest lands. An election-year scheme designed to boost Al Gore’s standing with greens, the plan called for banning most new roads and some forms of logging in so-called roadless lands 5,000 acres and larger in the national forests. In the end, the proposal, which was riddled with loopholes, fell far short of the expectations of most environmentalists. Even so, the plan was wildly popular with the public and opinion-makers.
The roadless area rule was set to go into effect on March 13, 2001. But the timber industry, in the nadir of another of its frequent slumps, fumed at the idea and goaded Bush into slapping a hold on the plan soon after the inauguration. Then in separate suits the state of Idaho and timber giants Boise-Cascade asked a federal court in Idaho to overturn the rule, putting forth the fantastical theory that the plan hadn’t been subjected to enough public review.
In fact, the case should have been dismissed outright, because the roadless area plan had gone through more public review than any environmental impact statement in the last 25 years. “There were mare than 1.6 million comments and 600 public meetings,” said Tim Hermach, director of the Native Forest Council, based in Eugene Oregon. “This plan was studied to death.”
But the Bush administration lawyers, put in the indelicate position of having to defend a plan they wanted to see abolished, simply threw up their hands, telling the judge they would be willing to suspend indefinitely implementation of the plan. “This was their first opportunity to defend the policy and they’ve come in with an offer to suspend it,” said Tom Preso, an attorney for Earthjustice, which represented numerous environmental groups that intervened in the case. The Bush administration is giving every indication that they want to bring bulldozers back into the national forests. It’s certainly a far cry from the vigorous defense of the rule promised by Attorney General John Ashcroft during his confirmation hearings.”
In reality, this constituted an orchestrated winking game between the Bushies and their pals in industry—the suit and the pleadings were coordinated between the plaintiffs and the defendants. This incestuous scam pointed toward a key Bush strategy: let third-parties do the heavy lifting on the most controversial issues in order to deflect some of the political heat.
A similar scenario played itself out in Alaska, where the Bush administration allowed the state’s congressional delegation and governor, Democrat Tony Knowles, to take the lead on the heated issue of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, a scheme that enjoys little public sympathy. Indeed, the Administration quietly urged Knowles to push the state legislature into approving a $1.85 million appropriation to a front group, called Alaska Power, which would in turn lobby congress and unleash a nationwide public relations campaign backing oil drilling in the tundra.
Through the 2000 campaign, Bush reminded the those who live in “blue areas on the map” that he owned a ranch and sympathized with the plight of the small farmer. This was prefabricated pablum for the rural folks and Bush, aside from his antipathy for the estate tax, apparently didn’t mean a world of it. In early March, family farm groups, already staggering from give-away trade pacts, chronically depressed prices and relentless consolidation, were dealt another blow when Ag Secretary Veneman invalidated a referendum approved in 2000 to end a mandatory promotional program that farmers said was corrupt. The farmers charged that their own money was being used against them to pursue ecologically destructive and price depressing factory hog farms. “The vote proved that we don’t want money going out our pockets for factory farms and corporate control anymore,” says Roger Allison, of the Missouri Farm Crisis Center. “ But they sabotaged it, declaring war on the family farm and on democracy.”
Most of the money from the check-off program funds the National Pork Producers Council, the trade association for the big pork processors that are putting small farmers out of business. The director of the council, Al Tank, served on George Bush’s agriculture transition team.
Meanwhile, under the mantra of states’ rights, the Agriculture Department and Christie Todd Whitman’s EPA moved quickly to ease pollution rules on big industrial farms and feedlots. In Oregon, for example, diary and beef cattle from factory ranches generate about 7.5 million tons of manure a year, much of it ending up in streams and rivers. In 1998, EPA found that 18 of the large ranches were violating the meager requirements of the Clean Water Act and began handing out fines and issuing corrective orders. Now the Republican members of the Oregon congressional delegation demanded that Whitman and Veneman to withdraw the fines, halt inspections and turn enforcement over to the western states.
A similar move was afoot in Ohio, where the Farm Bureau and other lobbyist for the megafarms told Whitman to make EPA inspectors stay out of Ohio and other Midwestern states and allow state agriculture departments (not even the environmental agencies) to decide how much pollution the meat factories can release into streams and rivers.
“Each state knows how to handle their situation better than the feds,” said Ohio Farm Bureau president Terry McClure. McClure said he was encouraged by Bush and Whitman’s receptiveness to the idea.
This proved to be another key element of the Bush approach to the environment. Using code words such as state primacy, local control and bottom-up planning, the Bush environmental team moved to swiftly devolve regulatory power from federal to state and local authorities—bodies over which industry enjoys an even tighter stranglehold than they do the feds. Over at EPA, Christie Todd Whitman lived a double life. On the outside, she has sounded like a perkier version of her predecessor, Carol Browner. Whitman bragged about getting the once taboo words “global warming” into Bush’s first address to congress, publicly chafed about the decision to strip federal funding from groups that advocate abortion overseas, and, during a trio to Trieste, told European environmental ministers that the Bush administration, unlike Clinton/Gore, would pursue mandatory caps on carbon dioxide emissions. Whitman garnered glowing press coverage citing her courage and feisty independence.
Then the plank was sawed off behind her. Bush announced that there would be no carbon caps and told Whitman to stop referring to carbon dioxide as a “pollutant.” Dick Cheney was rolled out of the hospital in time to do damage control, saying that Whitman had merely been a “good soldier” attempting to defend a “misguided” policy. Then Whitman herself was ushered forward to make a public retraction. She cited the looming energy crisis as the rationale for continued US intransigence on the build-up of greenhouse gasses.
The whole affair looked silly and amateurish. But it was actually a calculated maneuver. The Bush strategy was to hype up the California power crunch into a national energy emergency, which they intended to use to advance their agenda on multiple fronts: increased drilling and exploration; suspensions of clean air rules; new tax credits for oil and gas companies; and more subsidies for nuclear power. The CO2 retreat served as a kind of public sacrifice to illustrate their seriousness.
Less widely reported was Whitman’s move to reduce existing air quality standards in the Great Lakes region. On March 18 2001, Whitman announced that the EPA would relax pollution rules for gasoline in Chicago and Milwaukee. Whitman said the move was needed in order to keep gas prices from “spiking” this summer. Of course, this merely creates another incentive for the oil companies to price gouge and offer up environmental regulations as a handy scapegoat.
How was the Bush team be able to get away with it? Well, they used a time-worn strategy that Gale Norton called the “collaboration approach”, which entailed getting a few Democrats and one or two mainstream environmental groups to sign off an end-run around federal laws and regulations. It quickly yielded fruit. The carbon cap retreat was praised by three top Democrats: Sen. Robert Byrd, the coal companies’ one-man praetorian guard, John Breaux, the dark knight of the oil lobby, and Rep. John Dingell, loyal servant of the Detroit automakers.
Of course, there’s nothing innovative here. In Clintontime, this was known as triangulation. The new fusion politics looked a lot like the old variety.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This essay is excerpted from the forthcoming book GreenScare: the New War on Environmentalism by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR and Joshua Frank.