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New Congress Could Mean Shift in US Environmental Policy - 2002-12-14

Altered by its victories in the November elections, the Republican Party will take control of the U.S. Congress next month. The new Congress will feature a Republican majority in the Senate, and more Republican seats in the House of Representatives. The shift in power could mean major changes in U.S. environmental policy.

When Americans cast their votes in November's elections, they approved a host of state environmental measures to slow urban sprawl, promote "smart" growth and boost spending for natural lands and clean water.

The federal election results told a different story. Alys Campaigne is legislative director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a private environmental group. She says the new Republican leadership in Congress could bring major changes to U.S. environmental programs that she fears will favor historically polluting industries.

"There still is a strong bipartisan level of support for clean air, for clean water (and) for safe drinking water. But the leaders of the Environment Committee, of the Energy Committee and in the key positions in the House and in the Senate, many are heavily funded by industry," she says. "They are fully willing to do the bidding of the oil, coal and nuclear industries that have spent a lot of money to get them there [elected to Congress]."

"I agree with Alys with there is still bipartisan support for environmental protection. That is why I don't think that the election of a Republican Senate necessarily presages a complete rollback of environmental issues, says Scott Segal, a lobbyist who works on environmental and energy issues for the electric, coal and power industries. "What it may show is that other values will enter onto the national stage in competition with environmental protection, to a certain extent. For example, Senator Inhof, who will be the new chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, is from Oklahoma, and also serves on the Armed Forces Committee," he says. "In that capacity he has developed some expertise on force readiness and security issues. I think that the more our energy policy is shaped in a context of addressing security concerns, the more concerns there will be for oil and gas exploration and production issues."

As part of a broad energy bill, the Bush Administration supports oil and gas exploration in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other public lands to reduce America's dependence on foreign oil. Environmentalists have argued that tapping these new reserves would produce too little oil and disturb protected wildlife habitat.

A Republican White House, with backing from a Republican Congress, has more support for oil and gas drilling in Alaska. Alys Campaigne with the Natural Resources Defense Council says the new Congress is also more likely to block initiatives already on the books. "There are a number of ways in which that can be wielded that are going on right now, a bit under the radar screen. And, it is going to be more important than ever to expose," she says. "[These would be actions like] under funding or slashing the budgets at the agencies charged with enforcing the laws. [That] is what happened with the budget for the Environmental Protection Agency where the last [George W. Bush] administration [EPA] budget was cut by $1 billion. If you don't have people there to help review permits to review that pollutants are going into your lakes or rivers or streams or that companies are getting assistance to put in pollution control devices, they are simply taking the cops off the beat."

Industry lobbyist Scott Segal disagrees. He expects the Republican-controlled legislature - which supports less federal regulation - to operate more effectively than the previous Congress. He says Congress will not turn its back on thirty years of environmental progress. "From 1970 to the present we have had a thirty percent reduction of CO2 [carbon dioxide], [and a] 39 percent decrease in SO2 [sulfur dioxide]. We've had volatile organic compounds declining by 42 percent. Air toxins and particulate matter have fallen by 75 percent. So there is actually a positive record that can be built on, if the refineries or coal-fired power plants can be allowed to make efficiency upgrades to operate more efficiently."

"Again, Scott would like to talk about these as little clarifications or little tweaks here or there, says Ms. Campaigne. "The Clean Air [Act] rules he is describing would fundamentally undermine the Clean Air Act. They allow old, dirty power plants and facilities to pollute our air and not install pollution devices when they make major investments in their plant."

Alys Campaigne says environmental activists are gearing up to fight these and other threats, ranging from global warming to challenges to the Clean Air Act, logging in national forests, and requests from the military for additional exemptions from environmental regulations.

Alys Campaigne and Scott Segal quotes courtesy of the Diane Rehm Show, WAMU-FM; used with permission.