Friday, November 26, 2004

The Real Environmental Mandate

The New York Times
November 26, 2004

The Real Environmental Mandate

Michael Leavitt, who runs the Environmental Protection Agency, declared recently that the voters on Election Day had delivered a clear mandate for President Bush's environmental policies, a "validation of our philosophy and agenda."

We're still trying to puzzle out which voters he had in mind. For one thing, environmental issues - as well as related energy issues - rarely broke the surface of the campaign. That was a shame, since these are important matters and the candidates' views differed just as sharply as they did on other issues. But the electorate can hardly be said to have delivered a mandate on something they weren't even asked to think about.

To the extent that voters registered an opinion on environmental issues, they did it in local settings, and they consistently asked for more environmental protection than Mr. Bush has been offering them. With rare exceptions, the administration's operating mode has been to remove or roll back legal safeguards without putting much in their place, including the free-market solutions advertised as a substitute for regulations. This was true whether the issue was clean air, clean water or protecting the public lands from logging, destructive mining practices, overgrazing, and oil and gas drilling.

The voters sent a different message. In Colorado, a healthy majority approved a ballot initiative requiring electric utilities to generate 10 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2015, a more aggressive approach than any so far offered on the federal level. In Montana, despite heavy industry lobbying, an even greater majority upheld a prohibition on mining practices that pollute rivers and streams with toxic wastes - a brave vote in a poor state that needs jobs.

Nationwide, voters in red states as well as blue approved $2.53 billion worth of new bond issues to preserve open space - a clear rebuke to a Congress that has dramatically cut financing for land acquisition and to an administration that insists on opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling.

Though Mr. Leavitt's comments suggest that we can expect more of the same - more rollbacks dressed up as "sound science," more "market-based solutions" that are merely cover for needless delay - the administration has not really unveiled its plans. It is possible therefore that we could be pleasantly surprised. We could see a clean air program with teeth, we could see real money for the conservation programs in the farm bill, we could see energy legislation targeted more toward new technologies and conservation and less to the old extractive industries, we could see a public lands policy that spares our last wild places. That would be a fitting response to what the public really said on Nov. 2.