America's war on nature

For decades, US corporate interests have systematically sabotaged efforts to protect the environment. But the Bush years have seen the polluters encouraged to despoil as never before. Robert F Kennedy Jr laments
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The Independent US

George Bush will go down in history as America's worst environmental president. In a ferocious three-year attack, the Bush administration has initiated more than 200 major rollbacks of America's environmental laws, weakening the protection of our country's air, water, public lands and wildlife. Cloaked in meticulously crafted language designed to deceive the public, the administration intends to eliminate the nation's most important environmental laws by the end of the year. Under the guidance of the Republican pollster Frank Luntz, the Bush White House has hidden its anti-environmental programme behind deceptive rhetoric, telegenic spokespeople, secrecy and the intimidation of scientists and bureaucrats.

The Bush attack was not entirely unexpected. George Bush had the grimmest environmental record of any governor during his tenure in Texas. Texas became No 1 in air and water pollution and in the release of toxic chemicals. In his six years in Austin, Bush championed a short-term pollution-based prosperity, which enriched his political contributors and corporate cronies by lowering the quality of life for everyone else. Now President Bush is set to do the same to America. After three years, his policies are already bearing fruit.

I am angry both as a citizen and a father. Three of my sons have asthma, and I watch them struggle to breathe on bad-air days. And they are comparatively lucky: one in four African-American children in New York shares this affliction; their suffering is often unrelieved because they lack the insurance and high-quality healthcare that keep my sons alive. My kids are among the millions of Americans who cannot enjoy the seminal American experience of fishing locally with their dad and eating their catch. Most freshwater fish in New York, and all in Connecticut, are now under consumption advisories. A main source of mercury pollution in America, as well as asthma-provoking ozone and particulates, is the coal-burning power plants that President Bush recently excused from complying with the Clean Air Act.

Furthermore, the deadly addiction to fossil fuels that White House policies encourage has squandered our treasury, entangled us in foreign wars, diminished our international prestige, made us a target for terrorist attacks and increased our reliance on petty Middle Eastern dictators who are hated by their own people.

When the Republican right managed to install George Bush as President in 2000, the movement's leaders once again set about doing what they had attempted to do since the Reagan years: to eviscerate the infrastructure of laws and regulations that protect the environment. For 25 years it has been like the zombie that keeps coming back from the grave.

The attacks began on Inauguration Day, when Bush's chief of staff and former General Motors lobbyist Andrew Card quietly initiated a moratorium on all recently adopted regulations. Since then, the White House has enlisted every federal agency that oversees environmental programmes in a co-ordinated effort to relax rules aimed at the oil, coal, logging, mining and chemical industries as well as car-makers, real-estate developers, corporate agribusiness and other industries.

This onslaught is being co-ordinated through the White House Office of Management and Budget - or, more precisely, OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, under the direction of John Graham, the engine-room mechanic of the Bush stealth strategy. Graham's speciality is promoting changes in scientific and economic assumptions that underlie regulation - such as recalculating cost-benefit analyses to favour polluters. Before the White House, Graham was founding director of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, where he received funding from America's champion corporate polluters: Dow Chemical, DuPont, Monsanto, Alcoa, Exxon, General Electric and General Motors.

Penalties imposed for environmental violations have plummeted under Bush. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed eliminating 270 enforcement staffers, which would reduce staff levels to the lowest ever. Inspections of polluting businesses have dipped by 15 per cent. Criminal cases referred for federal prosecution have dropped by 40 per cent.

The EPA measures its success by the amount of pollution reduced or prevented as a result of its own actions. Last year, the EPA's two most senior career enforcement officials resigned after decades of service. They cited the administration's refusal to carry out environmental laws.

The White House has masked its attacks with euphemisms that would have embarrassed George Orwell. George Bush's "Healthy Forests" initiative promotes destructive logging of old-growth forests. His "Clear Skies" programme, which repealed key provisions of the Clean Air Act, allows more emissions. The administration uses misleading code words, such as streamlining or reforming instead of weakening, and thinning instead of logging.

Bush seems to be trying to take us all the way back to the Dark Ages by undermining the very principles of our environmental rights, which civilised nations have always recognised. Clean-air laws in England, passed in the 14th century, made it a capital offence to burn coal in London, and violators were executed for the crime. These "public trust" rights to unspoiled air, water and wildlife descended to the people of the United States after the American Revolution. Until 1870, a factory releasing even small amounts of smoke on to public or private property was operating illegally.

But during the Gilded Age, when the corporate robber barons captured the political and judicial systems, those rights were stolen from the American people. As the Industrial Revolution morphed into the postwar industrial boom, Americans found themselves paying a high price for the resulting pollution. The wake-up call came in the late Sixties, when Lake Erie was declared dead and Cleveland's Cuyahoga River exploded in colossal infernos.

In 1970, more than 20 million Americans took to the streets protesting about the state of the environment on the first Earth Day. Whether they knew it or not, they were demanding a return of ancient rights. During the next few years, Congress passed 28 major environmental statutes, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, and it created the Environmental Protection Agency to apply and enforce these new laws.

Earth Day caught polluters off guard. But in the next 30 years, they mounted an increasingly sophisticated and aggressive counterattack to undermine these laws. The Bush administration is a culmination of their three-decade campaign.

In 1980, the candidate Ronald Reagan declared: "I am a Sagebrush Rebel," marking a major turning point of the modern anti-environmental movement. In the early 1980s, the Western extractive industries, led by one of Colorado's worst polluters, the brewer Joseph Coors, organised the Sagebrush Rebellion, a coalition of industry money and right-wing ideologues that helped to elect Reagan president.

The big polluters who started the Sagebrush Rebellion were successful because they managed to broaden their constituency with anti-regulatory, anti-labour and anti-environmental rhetoric that had great appeal both among Christian fundamentalist leaders such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, and in certain western communities where hostility to government is deeply rooted.

Coors founded the Mountain States Legal Foundation in 1976 to bring lawsuits designed to enrich giant corporations, limit civil rights and attack unions, homosexuals and minorities. He also founded the right-wing Heritage Foundation to provide a philosophical underpinning for the anti-environmental movement.

From its conception, the Heritage Foundation and its neoconservative cronies urged followers to "strangle the environmental movement," which Heritage named "the greatest single threat to the American economy". Ronald Reagan's victory gave the Heritage Foundation and the Mountain States Legal Foundation immeasurable clout. Heritage became known as Reagan's "shadow government" and its 2,000-page manifesto, "Mandate for Change," became a blueprint for his administration.

Coors handpicked his Colorado associates: Anne Gorsuch became the EPA administrator; her husband, Robert Burford, a cattle baron who had vowed to destroy the Bureau of Land Management, was selected to head that very agency. Most notoriously, Coors chose James Watt, the president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, as the Secretary of the Interior. Watt was a proponent of "dominion theology," an authoritarian Christian heresy that advocates man's duty to "subdue" nature. His deep faith in laissez-faire capitalism and apocalyptic Christianity led Watt to set about dismantling his department and distributing its assets rather than managing them for future generations. During a Senate hearing, he cited the approaching Apocalypse to explain why he was giving away America's sacred places at fire-sale prices: "I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns."

Meanwhile, Anne Gorsuch gutted the EPA's budget by 60 per cent, crippling its ability to write regulations or enforce the law. She appointed lobbyists fresh from their stints in paper, asbestos, chemical and oil companies to run each of the principal agency departments. Her chief counsel was an Exxon lawyer; her head of enforcement was from General Motors.

These attacks on the environment precipitated a public revolt. By 1983, more than a million Americans and all 125 American-Indian tribes had signed a petition demanding Watt's removal. After being forced out of office, Watt was indicted on 25 felony counts of influence-peddling. Gorsuch and 23 of her cronies were forced to resign following a congressional investigation of sweetheart deals with polluters, including Coors. Her first deputy, Rita Lavelle, was jailed for perjury. The indictments and resignations put a temporary damper on the Sagebrush Rebels, but they quickly regrouped as the "Wise Use" movement. The Wise Use founder, the timber-industry spokesman Ron Arnold, said: "Our goal is to destroy, to eradicate the environmental movement. We want to be able to exploit the environment for private gain, absolutely."

By 1994, Wise Use helped to propel Newt Gingrich to the Speaker's chair of the House of Representatives and turn his anti-environmental manifesto, "The Contract with America," into law. Gingrich's chief of environmental policy was Tom DeLay, the one-time Houston exterminator who was determined to rid the world of pesky pesticide regulations and to promote a biblical world-view. He targeted the Endangered Species Act as the second-greatest threat to Texas after illegal aliens.

Gingrich and DeLay had learnt from the James Watt débâcle that they had to conceal their radical agenda. Carefully eschewing public debates on their initiatives, they mounted a stealth attack on America's environmental laws. Rather than pursue a frontal assault against popular statutes, such as the Endangered Species, Clean Water and Clean Air acts, they tried to undermine these laws by attaching silent riders to must-pass budget bills.

But the public got wise. Moderate Republicans teamed up with the Clinton administration to block the worst of it. My group, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), as well as the Sierra Club and the US Public Interest Research Group, generated more than one million letters to Congress. When President Clinton shut down the government in December 1995 rather than pass a budget bill spangled with anti-environmental riders, the tide turned against Gingrich and DeLay. By the end of that month, even conservatives disavowed the attack. "We lost the battle on the environment," DeLay conceded.

Today, with the presidency and both houses of Congress under the anti-environmentalists' control, they are set to eviscerate the despised laws. White House strategy is to promote its unpopular policies by lying about its agenda, cheating on the science and stealing the language and rhetoric of the environmental movement.

Even as the pollster Luntz acknowledged that the scientific evidence is against the Republicans on issues like global warming, he advised them to find scientists willing to hoodwink the public. "You need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue," he told Republicans, "by becoming even more active in recruiting experts sympathetic to your view."

In autumn 2001, the Interior Secretary, Gale Norton, provided the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources with her agency's scientific assessment that Arctic oil-drilling would not harm hundreds of thousands of caribou. Not long afterwards, Fish and Wildlife Service biologists contacted the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which defends scientists and other professionals working in state and federal environmental agencies. "The scientists provided us the science that they had submitted to Norton and the altered version that she had given to Congress a week later," said the group's executive director, Jeff Ruch. There were 17 major substantive changes, all of them minimising the reported impacts. When Norton was asked about the alterations in October 2001, she dismissed them as typographical errors.

There is no scientific debate in which the White House has cooked the books more than that of global warming. The Bush administration has altered, suppressed or attempted to discredit close to a dozen major reports on the subject. These include a 10-year study by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), commissioned by the President's father in 1993 in his own efforts to dodge what was already a virtual scientific consensus blaming industrial emissions for global warming.

After disavowing the Kyoto protocol, the Bush administration commissioned the federal government's National Academy of Sciences to find holes in the IPCC's analysis. But this ploy backfired. The NAS not only confirmed the existence of global warming and its connection to industrial greenhouse gases; it also predicted that the effects of climate change would be worse than previously believed, estimating that global temperatures will rise by between 2.5F and 10.4F by 2100.

In July this year, EPA scientists leaked a study, which the agency had ordered suppressed in May, showing that a Senate plan ­ co-sponsored by Republican Senator John McCain ­ to reduce the pollution that causes global warming could achieve its goal at very small cost. Bush reacted by launching a $100m 10-year effort to prove that global temperature changes have, in fact, occurred naturally ­ another delay tactic for the fossil-fuel barons.

There is no better example of the corporate cronyism now hijacking American democracy than the White House's cozy relationship with the energy industry. The energy industry contributed more than $48m to Republicans in the 2000 election cycle, with $3m to George Bush. Both Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney came out of the oil patch. Thirty-one of the Bush transition team's 48 members had energy-industry ties. Bush's cabinet and White House staff is an energy-industry dream team ­ four cabinet secretaries, the six most powerful White House officials and more than 20 high-level appointees are alumni of the industry and its allies.

Days after his inauguration, Bush launched the National Energy Policy Development Group, chaired by Cheney. For three months, the task force held closed-door meetings with energy-industry representatives ­ then refused to disclose the names of the participants.

For the first time in history, the nonpartisan General Accounting Office sued the executive branch, for access to these records. The NRDC put in a Freedom of Information Act request, and when Cheney did not respond, we also sued. On 21 February 2002, under a court order, the NRDC obtained some 20,000 documents. Although none of the logs on the Vice-President's meetings have been released yet and the pages were heavily redacted to prevent disclosure of useful information, the documents still allow glimpses of the process.

In the winter and spring of 2001, executives and lobbyists from the oil, coal, electric-utility and nuclear industries tramped in and out of the cabinet room and Cheney's office. Many of the lobbyists had just left posts inside Bush's presidential campaign to work for companies that had donated lavishly to that effort. Companies that made large contributions were given special access. Executives from Enron Corp, which contributed $2.5m to the Republicans from 1999 to 2002, had contact with the task force at least 10 times, including six face-to-face meetings between top officials and Cheney.

After one meeting with the Enron chief executive Kenneth Lay, Cheney dismissed California Governor Gray Davis's request to cap the state's energy prices. That denial would enrich Enron and nearly bankrupt California. It has since emerged that the state's energy crisis was largely engineered by Enron. According to The New York Times, the task-force staff circulated a memo that suggested "utilising" the crisis to justify expanded oil and gas drilling. President Bush and others would cite the California crisis to call for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

When it was suggested that access to the administration was for sale, Cheney hardly apologised. "Just because somebody makes a campaign contribution doesn't mean that they should be denied the opportunity to express their view to government officials," he said.

The energy task-force plan is a $20bn subsidy to the oil, coal and nuclear industries, which are already swimming in record revenues. In May this year, as the House passed the plan and as the rest of the nation stagnated in a recession abetted by high oil prices, Exxon announced that its profits had tripled from the previous quarter's record earnings. The energy plan recommends opening protected lands and waters to oil and gas drilling and building up to 1,900 electricity power-plants. National treasures such as the California and Florida coasts, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the areas around Yellowstone Park will be opened for plunder for the trivial amounts of fossil fuels they contain. While increasing reliance on oil, coal and nuclear power, the plan cuts the budget for research into energy efficiency and alternative power sources by nearly a third. "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue," Cheney explained, but it should not be the basis of "comprehensive energy policy".

On 27 August last year ­ while most of America was heading off for a Labor Day weekend ­ the administration announced that it would redefine carbon dioxide, the primary cause of global warming, so that it would no longer be considered a pollutant and would therefore not be subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act. The next day, the White House repealed the act's "new source review" provision, which requires companies to modernise pollution control when they modify their plants.

According to the National Academy of Sciences, the White House rollback will cause 30,000 Americans to die prematurely each year. Although the regulation will probably be reversed in the courts, the damage will have been done, and power utilities such as Southern Co will escape criminal prosecution. As soon as the new regulations were announced, John Pemberton, the chief of staff to the EPA's assistant administrator for air, left to work for Southern.

On 30 August this year, President Bush nominated Utah's three-term Republican Governor Mike Leavitt to replace his beleaguered EPA head, Christine Todd Whitman, who was driven from office, humiliated in even her paltry efforts to moderate the pillage. In October, Leavitt was confirmed by the Senate.

Like Gale Norton, Leavitt has a winning personality and a disastrous environmental record. Under his leadership, Utah tied for last as the state with the worst environmental enforcement record and ranked second-worst (behind Texas) for both air quality and toxic releases.

I was taught that communism leads to dictatorship and capitalism to democracy. But as we've seen from the Bush administration, the latter proposition does not always hold. While free markets tend to democratise a society, unfettered capitalism leads invariably to corporate control of government. Corporate capitalists do not want free markets, they want dependable profits, and their surest route is to crush competition by controlling government. The rise of fascism across Europe in the 1930s offers many lessons on how corporate power can undermine a democracy.Mussolini complained that "fascism should really be called 'corporatism'".

Today, George Bush and his court are treating our country as a grab bag for the robber barons, doling out the commons to large polluters. Last year, as the calamitous rollbacks multiplied, the corporate-owned TV networks devoted less than 4 per cent of their news minutes to environmental stories. If they knew the truth, most Americans would share my fury that this president is allowing his corporate cronies to steal America from our children.

Robert F Kennedy Jr is senior staff attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. A longer version of this article will appear in the issue of 'Rolling Stone' magazine dated 11 December 2003

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