Bush Energy Plan Electrifies Environmental Groups

By Brian Hansen

WASHINGTON, DC, January 29, 2001 (ENS) - Taking a cue from the Bush administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has temporarily relaxed a series of federal clean air regulations in an effort to ameliorate the electricity shortage that continues the plague the state of California.

The Bush administration, citing the electrical shortage in California, has authorized the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to relax clean air rules so that the state can produce more power.

The EPA, which has long been accused of stifling power production through the imposition of unnecessary and expensive clean air rules, this week announced that it will waive all enforcement actions against California power plants and diesel generators that violate federal air pollution emissions standards in the course of producing much needed electricity.

city

Long Beach, near Los Angeles, is typical of the California communities in need of more abundant and reliable power supplies. (Photo courtesy City of Long Beach)

In a related move, the EPA also relaxed a series of environmental rules that are designed to keep air emissions from electrical power production at low levels.

The slackening of the clean air rules, which was endorsed by top Bush administration officials, came in response to the electricity shortage that has sparked a series of rolling blackouts across the state of California over the last 14 days.

President George W. Bush, in a Monday meeting with key cabinet officials, announced that Vice President Dick Cheney will head up a special federal task force that will be convened to address "high energy prices" and the nation's dependence on foreign oil.

"We're very aware in this administration that the situation in California is beginning to affect neighboring states," Bush said.

Bush

President George W. Bush (Photo courtesy Office of the President)

Bush said that the ad-hoc task force would move "boldly and swiftly" to recommend a short term energy crisis plan for the state of California, as well as longer term energy policy for the nation as a whole. Bush's plans, in both cases, focus on the supply side of the energy equation.

"It's becoming very clear to the country that demand is outstripping supply, [and] that there are more users of electricity and natural gas than there are new units being found," Bush said. "We've got to be doing something about that."

Bush has long called for more oil and gas exploration on the nation's public lands, including the ecologically rich and environmentally sensitive coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Citing the energy crunch currently gripping the state of California, Bush late last week announced that he will call on Congress to approve a scheme giving oil companies access to the pristine Arctic refuge.

ANWR

Protected wild land in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Photo courtesy Arctic Power)

Bush's call prompted a quick response from some of the nation's biggest environmental groups, which have accused the administration of using the California electricity crisis as leverage to justify the weakening of environmental regulations throughout the country. Defenders of Wildlife, which has long opposed proposals to open up the Arctic refuge, has launched an Internet petition drive that urges people to speak out against "Big Oil's exploitation of America's greatest remaining unspoiled wildlife habitat."

"We expect this to be the biggest environmental petition ever conducted on the Internet," said Rodger Schlickeisen, the group's president. "This is the most important conservation battle of the new century, and we are giving people a 21st century way to make their voices heard."

The group's petition urges Bush and Congress to not allow oil exploration in the refuge, the only remaining portion of Alaska's North Slope not already open to drilling. The petition is also linked to a computer driven animation that depicts polar bears being driven from their den by oil wells erected on the refuge's now pristine coastal plain.

The petition's first signer was Jamie Rappaport Clark, who served as director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during the Clinton/Gore administration. Clark called the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge "America's Serengeti," a reference to the refuge's vast populations of polar bears, muskoxen, wolves and caribou that compares it to Tanzania's wildlife rich Serengeti plain.

"When the Bush administration proposes to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and its coastal plain to oil development, they are advocating sticking oil wells right smack in the biological heart of the wildest place left in America," Clark said. "It's tugging at a thread that could unravel the entire 19 million acre Arctic Refuge and a lot more as well," Clark warned.

Clark

Jamie Rappaport Clark, former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Photo courtesy USFWS)

Bush, as a presidential candidate, maintained that the refuge could be opened to oil development in an "environmentally sensitive" manner. That view has been shared by key Republicans on Capitol Hill, such as Alaska Senator Frank Murkowski, chairman of the Senate's powerful Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Schlickeisen, like many environmental leaders, takes issue with that view.

"Nothing is sacrosanct to the oil industry," said the Defenders of Wildlife president. "It sees all wilderness as merely something to be manipulated for commercial gain."

The welfare of the 129,000 member Porcupine caribou herd is linked to that of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Named for the major river within its range, the Porcupine herd uses an area the size of Wyoming in the Refuge, Yukon, and Northwest Territories. The herd winters in the southern portion of its range, including the Refuge, where they are an important resource for the Gwich'in people.

river

Porcupine River (Photo courtesy Yukon government)
The 7,000 Gwich'in indigenous people live in 15 villages and small towns scattered across northeast Alaska and northwest Canada, the most northernly location of all Indian nations. Recent archeological discoveries have shown that the people have survived with this herd and the ecosystem for 25,000 years. "It would be devastating to completely wipe out this strong international Gwich'in connection to the land with a stroke of a pen by the U.S. government," the tribe says.

Other groups do support drilling in the refuge. Arctic Power is an organization formed in 1992 to expedite congressional and presidential approval of oil exploration and production in the coastal plain of the refuge. Based in Anchorage, Alaska it includes the Alaska Chamber of Commerce as well as trucking, oil and gas, mining and forest industry associations.

But American Rivers President Rebecca Wodder said on Friday, "President Bush has wasted no time in declaring that the 'energy crisis' warrants a rollback in environmental regulations. This is hasty, unwise, and unnecessary, and it's not what the American people voted for on Election Day."

"The short term energy problems that California is experiencing are the fault of poor management and maintenance by the utility corporations themselves, combined with a failed state deregulation scheme. The new president should not try to blame those problems on citizens who want their environment protected, or imagine that rolling back environmental protections will solve them," Wodder said.

In a related development, the Senate on Tuesday is expected to vote to confirm Gale Norton, Bush's nominee for Interior Secretary. Norton, who once worked under former Reagan administration Interior Secretary James Watt, is a strong advocate of opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development.

To view the Internet petition created by Defenders of Wildlife, log on to: http://www.SaveArcticRefuge.org