Senators Come Up Short On Air Quality

6 November 2003

By Stentor Danielson

The current federal government has environmentalists begging for scraps. The administration's list of environmental sins is a substantial one weakening the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, an ecologically bankrupt Healthy Forests Initiative, a push to drill for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, laughably ineffective voluntary carbon emissions reductions, and other misdeeds -- with only the occasional bright spot, such as tightening emissions standards on off-road diesel vehicles.

A recent Senate vote on a climate change bill sponsored by John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) was considered a major victory because it was only defeated by a margin of 55-43. This result was achieved by drastically watering down the kind of restrictions on emissions that environmentalists would like to see -- for example, the bill would have done nothing to address automobile exhaust. The decision of eight Republicans to vote for the bill was widely praised, but one wonders what those 14 Democrats were doing not voting for it.

Another example came in the confirmation battle over Utah Governor Mike Leavitt, who was appointed to head the EPA. Leavitt was confirmed by a landslide of 88-8. He will replace former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, who resigned from the EPA in disgust over the Bush administration's constant undermining of the agency's work. Whitman's fate suggests that it doesn't matter much how green the EPA head is, since they have to work with a decidedly anti-environment President. Depending on how much integrity he has, Leavitt may wind up simply putting a friendly face on the White House's program.

Initially six Democratic Senators placed holds on Leavitt's nomination. They included Lieberman, John Kerry (Mass.), and John Edwards (S.C.), who are running for President and thus need to burnish their environmental credentials, as well as Hillary Clinton (N.Y.), who the Republicans want to run for President. But their problem wasn't with Leavitt. Leavitt is about as environmentalist a candidate as you'll find in the mainstream of the Republican Party. He was known, and praised, for his efforts to contain suburban sprawl. What the holds were really about was grabbing attention for condemnation of Bush's environmental record. The Democrats also wanted to get some straight answers from the administration about its shady dealings on the environment, such as twisting the EPA's arm to get it to remove language from a report that affirmed the reality of human-caused climate change. Clinton and Lieberman were particularly concerned over a suspected cover-up by the administration of air quality data at Ground Zero.

Following September 11, the EPA officially announced that the air in New York was fine to breathe. An inspector general's report this August claimed that the White House instructed the EPA to suppress cautions about potential air pollutants resulting from the collapse of the World Trade Center. If the report's implications are true, it would be a major breach of duty on the part of the administration -- so it's not surprising that the White House has resisted investigation of the allegation.

To smooth Leavitt's road to confirmation, Jim Connaughton, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, promised additional testing and evaluation of air quality in Lower Manhattan. In a statement last Monday, Clinton said "It is not enough -- I want to make that absolutely clear -- it is not enough." But she apparently felt it was sufficient to stop holding Leavitt hostage, and so she and the other Senators withdrew their holds on the nomination. Given the Bush administration's past relationship with research, it remains unclear whether onnaughton's concession means much of anything.

The need for more research has been a favored delaying tactic. This is most apparent on the question of climate change. Scientists -- including the career civil servants in the EPA -- are nearly unanimous that the global climate is changing, that people are responsible for at least part of the change, and that its effects will be negative. Yet Bush plays up the uncertainties in climate modeling, insisting that we need more research before we begin action. On the other hand, he and other Republicans seem quite willing to rely on highly contested studies purporting to show devastating economic consequences from greenhouse gas reduction policies.

It's also questionable how much a White House-led investigation would turn up. Bush has been persistent in resisting attempts to investigate the possible intelligence failures that may have led to the September 11 attacks. His obstinacy has begun angering Republican Congressmen, who have the crazy idea that a fair and open investigation would help America make itself safer in the future.

Covering things up has become a compulsive behavior for the administration. Recently, the Justice Department finally released the results of a study on the diversity of its attorneys, with large sections blacked out. Luckily, was able to exploit a feature of the pdf file that contained the report and restore the removed sections. Apparently the fact that discrimination exists in the Department of Justice is top secret. Such excessively secretive behavior does not inspire confidence in the results of the air quality investigation.

All this is not to blame Clinton and Lieberman for selling out -- though it's disappointing that Lieberman, Kerry, and Edwards missed the confirmation vote. It was always likely that Leavitt would be confirmed, and they'd milked his confirmation for as much as it was worth. The payoff was slim -- a minimal concession by the White House. The best hope for the environment is that the administration's poor record will motivate Americans to vote in a more environmentally friendly Congress and President next year.

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