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US, European Meeting Focuses on Areas of Agreement in Reducing Pollution - 2004-04-21

The new head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said differences in environmental policy between the United States and Europe are not as serious as many people think, but environmental activists are not convinced. U.S. and European environmental officials wrapped up a meeting of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The new head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Michael Leavitt, said that the two-day meeting focused on areas of agreement among the industrialized nations on ways to reduce environmental pollution.

"There may be different points of view, but there is a great deal of interest that we have in the same issues," he said. "Frankly, there is a number of issues in which we have not just common interests but common approaches."

Among other things, ministers at the OECD meeting agreed they need to make more progress in preserving biodiversity and reducing greenhouse gasses.

A former governor of the western state of Utah, Mr. Leavitt's appointment as Environmental Protection Agency head last year drew praise from U.S. industry leaders, but criticism from some environmentalists. During a VOA interview in Paris, he outlined Bush administration plans to cut the intensity of greenhouse gases by 18 percent during the next decade. He noted that a new requirement to reduce harmful mercury emissions by power plants is a first for the U.S. government.

Mr. Leavitt's trip here, his first as the EPA's new head, follows concern by environmentalists and some OECD members over Washington's decision not to ratify key international environmental agreements, including the Kyoto global warming protocol and a U.N. biodiversity convention, but Mr. Leavitt said the Bush administration is committed to reducing environmental degradation, particularly by offering businesses economic incentives to do so.

"We have to not just continue environmental progress, but accelerate it," he said. "But it has to be done in a manner that will allow us to maintain economic competitiveness. When economic competitiveness is absent, environmental progress stops."

A European official said Mr. Leavitt's presence in Paris was welcomed, and that the talks went well.

However, Steve Sawyer, political director of the nongovernmental environment group Greenpeace International, is skeptical about the merits of market incentives aimed at reducing pollution. He added that the United States and many European countries remain far apart on how to deal with environmental problems.

"Certainly the Europeans are not unified, and they do not speak with one voice," he said. "Life would be a lot simpler if they did, but they do not, but compared with the United States on most major questions, there is a pretty clear transatlantic divide."

Environmentalists also say the Bush administration policies on greenhouse gases and mercury pollution are inadequate. They add the overall amount of greenhouse gas emissions would actually continue to rise under the U.S. government's program and that mercury limits are too high and may actually perpetrate mercury pollution in some areas.