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US Environmentalists Fear Bush Budget Plan - 2003-02-09

The Bush administration says the $2.2 trillion budget plan for 2004 submitted to the United States Congress this week reflects national priorities, the war against terrorism, homeland security and long term economic growth. But environmentalists fear the proposed budget will roll back environmental protections and open public wilderness preserves to oil, gas, mining and timber companies.

In terms of dollars and cents, the 2004 budget request increases spending for defense, the war against terrorism and homeland security. It also expands tax cuts, a move the Bush administration says will help stimulate a sluggish economy and create jobs.

Charli Coon is a senior policy analyst on energy and the environment with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research and educational institute based in Washington. She says that in the context of the national political agenda, the environment is not shortchanged.

"I would say that the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Interior are treated fairly in the budget," she says. "When you look at non-defense discretionary spending, they are getting about ten percent of that. Given the times, that the focus is on economic growth, on national defense and homeland security and possibly a war, the amounts the president is proposing are reasonable. In fact, the Department of Energy [budget] is going up six percent, Interior about three percent, and the Environmental Protection Agency is remaining pretty much the same."

Welsey Warren is a senior fellow for environmental economics with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. Taking a closer look at the numbers, he says, the proposed budget deprives agencies responsible for protecting the environment of adequate financial resources to do their job. "Even though government spending as a whole will go up by about four percent, environmental spending goes down by about six percent, so plainly something is going on here rather than to balance the books. It reveals the hidden anti-environmental agenda in this budget document," she says.

The Environmental Protection Agency would suffer a $500 million cut from the $7.6 billion EPA budget request. Wesley Warren says the impact on the Agency would be enormous.

"Overall, water-quality investments [would be] washed out, enforcement personnel are being moved out, and the 'polluter pays' principle is being canceled out," he says. "This means that protection is going down and pollution is going up. In respect to clean water, it is really astonishing. About one-third of the investments (made) since 2002 would be wiped out in this budget. On enforcement, they claim that they have an increase in enforcement for this year, but that is only compared to 2003.

"If you compare to where they were at the beginning of this administration, we are still down about 100 key enforcement personnel, and their own press and budget documents reveal that the amount of pollution that we reduce from enforcement actions has dropped by more than half. Finally, Super Fund, where the industry was supposed to pay for the cleanup [of toxic waste sites]. They have a small increase in their budget of $90 million, but they haven't re-instituted the 'polluters-pay' fee and as a consequence, the tax payer is picking up practically the whole tab."

Environmentalists also argue that the president's Clear Skies initiative, a proposal aimed at reducing health-threatening air pollutants from utility plants and factories, would actually increase pollution relative to what could be done if clean air laws already on the books were enforced.

On the other hand, the biggest increase in the budget is for a program to develop hydrogen-powered cars, with funding up 121 percent to $88 million. The budget also proposes incentives for energy conservation, including tax relief for the purchase of residential solar energy equipment, for the purchase of electricity generated by wind, and for the purchase of new hybrid gas-electric vehicle.

Environmentalists argue these initiatives come at the expense of major cuts to on-going renewable energy and energy efficiency programs. But, Charli Koon with the Heritage Foundation says the budget proposals make good fiscal sense.

"We have to remember that most of our energy does not come from renewable sources, and given the times and the budget constraints that we have now, we have to prioritize. And I think the president is prioritizing and funding the highest level initiatives for the environment and energy," she says.

The Bush administration has called for greater energy security, meaning less U.S. dependence on foreign oil. This is why drilling for oil and gas on public lands like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska a controversial move hotly debated in Congress has been included in the budget.

The administration would earmark money generated from oil leases in the Arctic preserve for renewable energy programs, a move strongly opposed by environmentalists like Bonnie Galvin with the Wilderness Society.

"Trying to sneak the Arctic [National Wildlife Refuge] through by inserting it into a complex technical budget document, we think is pretty outrageous," she says. "We feel confident that Congress is going to stand up and oppose that."

Environmentalists say they have bipartisan support for the environment in Congress, which must approve any final budget. The challenge, they say, will be to negotiate for a budget that also makes sense for the environment. The debate is expected to continue at least until October 2003. That would be the beginning of the 2004 fiscal year, which is also a presidential election year in the United States.