Washington — The environmentalist lobby is on a collision course with other national priorities which loom more urgent to many Americans. The President and Congress are making a genuine effort to bring the budget into balance. Including both government and private industry, the nation spent about $47.6 billion for pollution control in 1978, and the Council on Environmental Quality projects the total costs resulting from federal environmental laws at $361.3 billion through 1986.
Mr. Carter is pressing industry, with words and financial help, to turn from oil to coal in order to help free the US from dependence on Middle East oil and thus reduce the danger of confrontation with the Soviet Union in the Gulf.
Something is going to have to give. There will have to be compromise and balance among costly competing demands on federal spending.
I am not suggesting that the valid and widely approved measures to halt the abuse of the environment be summarily adjourned. When President Nixon on New Year's Day, 1970, signed the first Environmental Policy Act, he called the new law an environmental bill of rights. He rightly said that the 1970s must be the years when America begins to pay its debt to the past "by reclaiming the purity of the air, its water and our living environment."
Right, but equally if not more acutely pressing concerns are now hanging over the nation like dangling swords.
Most Americans will agree, I think, that dealing seriously with inflation is more imperative than doing everything at once to protect the environment.
Most Americans, I suspect, will see escaping from the financial stranglehold of imported OPEC oil and thereby abating the peril of war with Russia as essential -- more essential than putting so much into the environment so rapidly.
These concerns -- inflation and dependence on imported oil -- cannot be postponed. They cannot be put off even a little bit. They should have been dealt with last year and the year before that. Congress and several presidents fiddled while the price of oil went up and the value of the dollar went down.
The environmentalist lobby seems to want it all their way. They want their budgets kept intact. They want to keep industry from using more coal, and they want to prevent the development of nuclear power which could reduce the need to burn so much coal, despite the fact that nuclear power has proved itself the purest source of energy. The environmentalists seem to fear the very name of nuclear power.
Substantial environmental progress has been made in the past ten years. The National Wildlife Federation reports that some 50 bodies of water "have shown considerable improvement and that about 3,600 of the nation's 4,000 major industrial polluters are meeting their clean-up deadlines."
One of the direct effects of inflation and fears of a recession is that contributions to environmental groups have slowed at a time when their programs are expanding. Withdrawal of Ford Foundation money has compounded difficulties. While Ford had expected to cut funding eventually since the foundation has a policy of not financing in perpetuity, the cuts come at a time when it is exceptionally difficult to raise money from other sources.
While some individual groups may go under in the 1980s there is little doubt that environmentalism as a movement will survive a period of austerity.
People still care about the environment -- and should.
Obviously more needs to be done. It is true that, of the nation's 105 largest urban areas, only Honolulu has really clean air.
But it can't all be done at once if the US is to cope simultaneously with inflation and the need to develop domestic sources of alternative energy.
Unquestionably we have neglected the environment too long, at least 150 years too long -- but under present circumstances we can't repair all the past in two decades.