TCS Daily

In Defense of the President's Environmental Record

By Max Borders - September 17, 2004 12:00 AM

While the environment remains at the bottom of the priority list for US voters, a number of factions continue nevertheless to flail wildly at the President on his green record -- claiming that his administration's work on the environment is poor, or worse:

  • The League of Conservation Voters - gave President George W. Bush an 'F' on the organization's 2003 Report Card

  • The Children's Environmental Health Network -- gave the Bush Administration an 'F' for "how well it has protected children from environmental threats..."


  • The National Park Conservation Association -- said "President Bush receives a D for his record to date on national parks."

But why is the Administration receiving such low marks? Is there any truth to the claim that Bush cares not-a-jot about the environment? Are any of these so-called "report cards" even fair?

While partisanship has much to do with how the President is scored, there are some other factors at play. Indeed, it is important to investigate the criteria upon which so many of these reports are judged. For example, many groups judge the Administration on the volume of environmental legislation it enacts, or how many regulations it imposes. Other groups base their criteria on ways in which the President has rolled back or softened environmental legislation already in place.

On these criteria alone, Bush would score an 'F,' as thinking among the some folks at the Bush Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department is, in many respects, a completely new philosophy for making environmental improvements -- one that deemphasizes such obsolete criteria. The "new" environmentalism is a philosophy that seeks to steer away from the method of imposing costly regulations that often result in deleterious consequences. And the new environmentalism replaces such wasteful regulatory approaches of Bush's predecessors with a nod to economic realities. Such a philosophy can be distilled into three memorable mantras: "markets before mandates;" "counting costs and benefits" and "cooperative conservation."

Markets before mandates

This tenet represents the lesson not only that regulation can have negative unforeseen consequences, but that markets harness the ingenuity of the involved players. One such move is exemplified by departing from the New Source Review paradigm to the Clear Skies Initiative, the latter of which has been mischaracterized in all the ways one might expect from a successful program carried out by the Right. In fact, Greens have lamented the defanging of New Source Review -- the outmoded fixture of the Clean Air Act, which gave the EPA the power to sue polluting companies that failed to comply with its standards -- however draconian. This year, one EPA enforcer, Eric Shaeffer, resigned from his position in disgust: "I cannot leave without sharing my frustration about the fate of our enforcement actions against power companies," stated Schaeffer in his resignation letter. "It is no longer possible to pretend that the ongoing debate with the White House and Department of Energy is not affecting our ability to negotiate settlements. ... [W]e have filed no new lawsuits against utility companies since this Administration took office."

Why did the Administration do away with New Source Review? The Bush Administration -- via Clear Skies -- has moved to a system of cap-and-trade, which addresses almost every metric of air pollution, including Sulfur Dioxide, Mercury and Nitrous Oxides. It works like this: instead of coercing a coal-burning company to retrofit its smokestacks with ten-year-old technology, or worse, to completely overhaul its facilities (at the threat of lawsuit) until it has bankrupted itself, the company is given an incentive either to buy pollution credits from a cleaner company or to use the latest technology to bring down its own emissions. Many companies end up reducing enough to sell credits to other polluters. Curiously, one wonders why Greens haven't found it more cost effective to buy pollution permits and retire them, rather than lobby Congress for more legislation? But most are stuck in the old paradigm which says more (legislation) is better.

The aggregate effect of pollution trading is reduction in air pollution -- done more efficiently and at a lower cost to all the parties involved (including the government). In short, the Administration has begun to look for win-win-win situations. Of course, opponents balk at this approach, claiming it represents a win only for corporate interests -- as if such interests aren't tied up with those of the government and taxpayers, and as if it is impossible for companies to be successful without ruining the environment.

But the application of Clear Skies means it has been unnecessary to introduce much in the way of new regulations. How does that translate to someone set in the old thinking? "Bush is doing nothing for the environment." But nothing could be further from the truth.

Counting costs and benefits The Bush Administration has also phased out regulations that either end up doing more harm than good, or that end up costing too much money. For example, in the past the National Parks had to depend on appropriations by Congress in order to get maintenance revenues. Given the bureaucratic hurdles and logrolling that went on at the federal level, there had to be an imminent emergency before the government was willing to spend money on parks.

To remedy this, the President has been trying to make permanent a trial program enacted in Congress in 1996 called "Fee Demonstration," in which park visitors pay a small fee to enjoy the amenities of Federal lands. Only twenty percent of the monies collected by the Parks had to be returned to the US treasury while the rest stayed in the parks. The result? Park managers have had greater control over resources and could budget according to their onsite needs. In the meantime, these revenues help reduce what amounts to a tax subsidy for predominantly wealthy park visitors and the parks have been able to make local improvements that require less from the Feds (and thus also taxpayers who don't use the parks). The program in its current form is due to expire in September. More improvement in this area is needed, as federally managed lands operate at a deficit due to forest fires and other expensive problems, many of which are a direct result of the bureaucracy's inability to deal effectively with nearly 1/3 of the landmass in the US.

Another change in the Bush approach has been to phase out resources for Superfund, including corporate taxes for such projects. Opponents argue that reducing our commitment to Superfund amounts to the Administration turning its back on sites with toxins that are harmful to nearby communities. In truth, however, the government understands that it has finite resources. The President's move away from Superfund more than suggests he is aware of this fact and has placed a greater emphasis on risk analysis, costs and benefits.

Environmental economist Richard Stroup explains the political problem of risk like this:

"Much of the environmental policy in the United States is driven by the fact that voters see potential gains from reducing risk through the political process. They believe that they benefit and they think that giant, faceless corporations pay for those benefits. While they may act quite differently on an individual level (for example, they may be quite willing to bear small risks), as voters they tend to support heavy expenditures to reduce risks, however small."

So, the government could do better -- statistically speaking -- than spending 2 million dollars to save a life, especially if there is another option to spend $60,000 to save a life, say, by putting a guardrail on an interstate. Superfund projects tend to resemble the former scenario, according to economists like Stroup. And the Bush Administration realizes this even though Superfund has somehow become a symbol of active, responsible environmental legislation. It turns out, Superfund is an immense money-sink that has made marginal improvements to the environment, coming at the expense of human lives.

Cooperative conservation

Most environmental problems are local. The Bush administration has begun to understand that coping with a zillion local problems involves applying some sort of subsidiarity approach. That means the government had to ask itself: how can we overcome the insurmountable problems associated with so many complicated, costly problems distributed around the country? The answer, thinks the Administration, lies in engaging communities rather than issuing directives. Therefore, cooperative conservation relies on encouraging interested parties to work out mutually beneficial solutions at the most local feasible level. Such an approach helps to tackle what economists call "information problems," which bureaucracies have been notoriously bad at addressing.

For example, a group of Pennsylvania farmers initiated a project to reclaim 100 miles of streams and riparian areas along Buffalo Creek in their home state. These farmers engage in conservation as partners and participants, not as parties forced by Washington's hand. Assistant Secretary of the Interior Lynn Scarlett, in an interview with Grist Magazine had this to say in reference to the new approach:

"There is an edifice out there of standards, virtually all of which remain in place. A lot of the controversies have been around what's the next step in standards -- do we add an additional increment in such-and-so emission or do we add an additional type of emission to the suite of things we already regulate? Or do we invest our energy in bigger-bang achievements that come from cooperative conservation?"

The Interior has begun to see itself as facilitator and information provider, a tack which allows them more effectively to harness the energies of parties on the ground, rather than wasting money trying to get people just to budge. In some ways, it means leaving the stick for the carrot. And such has required a radical shift in thinking, one that has simply not made the radar screens of the mainstream Media.

This problem is a result of what one might call the "iconic scraps of legislation" problem. For example, in one clause of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the whole business of "listing" species became symbolic of the entire piece of legislation. That means, if the Administration fails to spend resources finding, listing, and protecting new species, they are found wanting in their commitments to the ESA. Meanwhile, many formerly listed species are not only rebounding, but thriving. Superfund and the Clean Air and Water Acts have similar icons, which people hold up as standards of environmental improvement while ignoring real developments, such as those detailed in this year's Index of Environmental Indicators, a joint publication of the Pacific Research Institute and the American Enterprise Institute.

But the critics of the Bush eco-record aren't just on the Left. The Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), a free-market environmental group, said "President Bush doesn't quite score a "gentleman's C" in PERC's new Mid-Term Report Card..." While PERC's economically sound approaches to environmental improvement are among the smartest going, they also come across as the most radical. That is to say, free-market environmentalism is not yet politically viable. Many at PERC believe that the government should not only privatize federal lands, but dismantle the entire environmental regulatory superstructure in order to replace it with a thoroughly Common Law system based on strict property rights. Believe it or not, these are good ideas, but tough to transform into political reality -- given both the status quo and the ease of translating these concepts to voters. In any case, we can see how, by PERC's standards, the Administration would be given a C-, as the BLM isn't going anywhere and the environmental regulatory edifice is still largely in place.

And it's precisely in the area of communicating the Administration's own policies and achievements that Bush should receive an F. The President is fortunate in that, overall, people care more about matters of security and economic stability than the environment. The administration has been woefully inadequate in communicating its grand visions of markets before mandates, counting costs and benefits, and cooperative conservation. That is not to say that Mike Leavitt and Gail Norton have not had a Herculean task in getting across both the philosophy and the progress that has been made. But given the current perceptions of the electorate and the skepticism of the Media, the message, sadly, has been lost.

The good Administration has done for the environment may never be realized in our history books. But despite the immense political impediments to implementing a paradigm shift, the President has done a good job. In fact, He deserves a B.

The author is a TCS contributor. He recently wrote about Libertarian Hawks.


TCS Daily Archives