Bush's Pace on the Environment

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ENVIRONMENTAL problems just keep simmering. Once in a while a major event, like the Alaska oil spill, brings issues to a boil. Mostly, air and water pollution accumulate, greenhouse gases keep flowing upward, pesticides keep working their way into the food chain. It takes a concerted effort to reverse these processes. President Bush came to office asserting he was ready to make that effort. Has he lived up to his words? Less than a year into the Bush presidency, that question can't be answered definitively. But we've seen indicators, good and bad.

This administration has shown itself much more open to environmental concerns than its predecessor. Conservation groups say they can at least get a hearing in the White House; under President Reagan, the door was closed. Some Bush appointments have won kudos, notably William Reilly to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Mr. Reilly has started to wake up an office that had gone dormant. The EPA's blocking of the Two Forks dam project on the South Platte River in Colorado is an example of needed regulatory muscle.

Other appointees have brought groans. The nomination of James Cason to the Agriculture Department post that oversees national forests faces strong opposition. Mr. Cason served under former Interior Secretary James Watt, and is perceived to share Mr. Watt's strong inclination to favor business interests over conservation interests. His nomination deserves the close scrutiny it's getting.

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Even critics of the Bush environmental record like his proposed strengthening of the United States clean air laws. That legislation is passing through the congressional mill where key features can be ground down. The alternative-fuels measure, which would have required that a certain percentage of cars produced in the US eventually run on cleaner-burning fuels, has already been weakened. Legislators whose districts embrace the soft-coal industry are taking careful aim at the acid-rain portion of the bill.

The administration's vigor in fighting for Bush's original clean-air provisions will say a lot about its commitment.

Global warming is another test. An international coalition against pollution could form around this issue. But the administration shies away from proposals to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas. The leeriness, of course, springs from economic concerns, since carbon dioxide is a byproduct of burning oil and coal.

Certainly economic factors have to be weighed, but the US should be providing the vision to help lessen an environmental hazard, which, left unchecked, could have economic consequences that dwarf current concerns.

Environmental leadership demands vision. The problems of pollution should be addressed today, not left to boil over on another generation. The Bush administration still has plenty of time to do a better job of living up to its promises.

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