Thursday, November 11, 2004

Threats to National Environmental Policy

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By the time last week’s election took place, the lack of attention to environmental issues in the campaign had become its own news story. That’s unfortunate, because it allowed candidates to run without articulating positions on matters that most Americans hold dear. And in the past four years, the Bush administration has pursued a series of radical challenges to the national legislation that has done us so much good in the past thirty years—legislation such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

Some of the threats to these laws aroused such broad opposition that the administration was forced to abandon them, but others were simply put on hold. These threats are sure to be reasserted in the next four years. If we’re not vigilant in opposing them, we stand to lose a lot of hard-fought ground.

Take the Clean Water Act, for example. Passed by Congress in 1972 and signed by Richard Nixon, it has marked the beginning of a broad recovery for our nation’s rivers and lakes. The policy of the current administration has been directed toward narrowing enforcement of the Clean Water Act, putting at risk wetlands and waters that have in the past been protected. We’re talking about twenty million acres of wetlands and other waters that provide wildlife habitat, protect us from floods, and recharge our groundwater supplies.

The Clean Air Act, last revised in 1990 and designed to reduce air pollution over time, has also been subjected to threats that would greatly diminish its effectiveness. Most notable among these are rule changes that would allow thousands of aging industrial facilities including power plants, refineries, and chemical plants to be updated and expanded without the improvements in pollution control that the Clean Air Act was designed to require.

The Endangered Species Act, passed by bipartisan majorities in the house and senate and signed by Nixon in 1973, has also been the target of systematic attacks under the Bush administration. These have included the refusal of Bush agency officials to comply with court orders, the dismissal of scientific input when it conflicted with administration goals, failure to request necessary funding, and footdragging on the matter of listing new species.

It would be pleasing to think that we could determine the condition of the environment we leave for future generations by our good will and individual efforts—things like driving less, conserving energy at home, cutting down on our use of harmful chemicals.

But individual efforts are only part of a larger equation.

We’re where we are today because we the people have acted through our elected representatives to protect our water, our air, our natural heritage—public goods all—through sensible regulation. Let’s not lose sight of that in the next four years.