Cheaper vs. cleaner: big differences

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Consider two recent news items: oil prices creeping up toward $50 a barrel and Antarctic glaciers breaking up into icebergs at an accelerated pace, probably due to global warming.

They may not seem related. And with war in Iraq and the economy topping the list of election concerns, energy and the environment aren't exactly front-page political news.

But the two overlap considerably. And while they may not rank as top-tier issues among voters, they resonate deeply and personally for millions of Americans - including many who've yet to make up their minds whom to vote for.

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George Bush and John Kerry approach the two issues very differently.

Mr. Bush leans toward loosening government regulations and favoring the marketplace to reduce pollution, while opening federal lands to more logging, mining, and especially oil and gas drilling. He's suspicious of international efforts to address issues like climate change.

In his two decades as a United States senator, by contrast, Mr. Kerry has become known as one of the strongest supporters of environmental laws while advocating a faster pace toward renewable energy sources. He wants the US to engage more fully with the rest of the world on environmental issues that know no borders.

No issue symbolizes the contrast between the two better than the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Bush wants to open part of the coastal plain there for oil drilling; Kerry has led the congressional fight to preserve the area for caribou, polar bear, and other wildlife.

Drilling for oil vs. wildlife

The philosophical basis of the Bush administration's approach to the twinned issues of protecting nature and moving toward energy independence is that environmental progress cannot be achieved without economic prosperity.

"We have made a national commitment to environmental improvement," says Environmental Protection Agency administrator Michael Leavitt. But as Mr. Leavitt, the former governor of Utah, also frequently says: "Nothing promotes pollution like poverty." And that, he acknowledges, "creates an undeniable tension between our environmental aspirations and our economic desires."

In principle, Mr. Kerry would not disagree.

But while activists criticize just about everything Bush does regarding energy and the environment, Kerry is seen as their champion.

Early in the primary season, Kerry was endorsed by the League of Conservation Voters, one of the largest and most overtly political environmental groups in the country. Describing him as "one of America's premier environmental leaders," the league asserted that "on a range of domestic issues - from clean air to clean water to public lands - Kerry has repeatedly staked out pro-environment positions."

The Sierra Club - the other major environmental organization that campaigns for candidates - has endorsed Kerry as well. "John Kerry's record on the environment is impressive by any measure and reveals a sincere personal passion for the issue," says Carl Pope, the club's executive director.

The issue does seem to be personally important to Kerry, as it does to his extended family. He met his wife Teresa at an Earth Day event in 1990, and he was one of a handful of US senators to attend the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil. (Al Gore was there, too.)

Shared goal: cleaner fuel, air

Among Kerry's goals: Independence from Middle East sources of oil in 10 years and generating 20 percent of the nation's electricity from renewable or alternative sources by 2020.

In part, this would be achieved by directing some of the government royalties from oil and gas drilling on federal lands to the development of cleaner energy sources.

Long an advocate of raising fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks, Kerry also proposes tax credits for auto manufacturers and consumers in order to spur faster development of advanced technology vehicles. He would invest $10 billion in clean coal technology, and he advocates tax incentives to construct energy-efficient buildings and homes and retrofit older ones.

Depending on one's point of view, Kerry's proposals are either visionary and bold or they would "weaken the economy ... and cause massive job losses in key industries," as the Bush campaign asserts.

Bush, too, pledges to "reduce power plant emissions ... and help the states meet tougher new air quality standards." The focus of his clean-energy proposal is more government help to develop hydrogen-power fuel cell technology for vehicles, homes, and businesses.

Bush would change clean-air laws to emphasize a market approach to reducing such pollutants as mercury, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide. Under a "cap and trade" system, cleaner businesses could sell the right to pollute to other businesses unable to stay beneath their emission cap.

Environmentalists lauded the administration's new regulation reducing diesel emissions from off-road vehicles used in agriculture and construction. But they charge that Bush's proposals for other pollutants actually make it easier for industries than under the existing Clean Air Act by lowering the goals and giving them more time to reduce such emissions. And they criticized the president for first pledging to regulate emissions of carbon dioxide (the main greenhouse gas causing global warming) and then deciding to make such reductions voluntary.

That Bush and Vice president Dick Cheney are both former oilmen (or that Mr. Cheney refused to say whose advice he took in crafting the White House energy plan) does not help the administration's image here.

Meanwhile, some of the traditional GOP base - like ranchers in the Rocky Mountain West - have been joining environmentalists in opposing the steep increase in oil and gas leases allowed there under the Bush administration.

How does the public think about the environment?

A solid majority of Americans - 61 percent - describe themselves as activists or at least sympathetic toward the environmental movement, according to the Gallup organization. And by 58 to 34 percent, they think environmental quality in the country is getting worse rather than better. Generally speaking, most Republicans as well as Democrats think of themselves as pro-environment.

But there's been a shift in recent years in public opinion - a development that may give Kerry pause.

Shifting public attitudes

About the time Bush took office, a strong majority (70 to 23 percent) favored environmental protection "even at the risk of curbing economic growth," according to Gallup. Three years later, the gap had narrowed considerably: Forty-nine percent still favored protecting the environment, but 44 percent agreed that "economic growth should be given priority, even if the environment suffers to some extent."

In other words, it seems, the public is moving at least in the direction (if not to the extent) of the Bush position.

Still, the GOP knows it's on tricky ground here.

While the Bush administration and the Republican Congress have worked to roll back some Clinton-era initiatives, ease government regulation, reduce the economic impact of such landmark laws as the Endangered Species Act, and open up more federal land to extractive industries, not all GOP elected officials are fully behind them.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) just signed more than two dozen pro-environment bills addressing topics ranging from hybrid cars and cleaner buses to new protections for the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. The state also is on a collision course with the White House over California's proposal to regulate greenhouse gases from autos. Other Republican governors - George Pataki of New York, for example - are seen as much "greener" than Bush as well.

Meanwhile, scientific evidence continues to mount that man-made climate change is occurring. Senator John McCain (R) of Arizona, one of the most respected politicians in the country, is urging the president to do more about global warming.

Voters may be making their decisions mainly for other reasons. But in a confidential memo to elected GOP leaders last year, Republican pollster Frank Luntz wrote, "The environment is probably the single issue on which Republicans in general - and President Bush in particular - are most vulnerable."

Proposals: from foreign oil to global warming

Bush

• Supports oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to cut dependence on foreign oil. Has expanded options for natural gas drilling in the West. Provide $4 billion in tax incentives for new energy technologies and conservation.

• Favors more logging on federal lands to create jobs and prevent fires.

• Withdrew US from Kyoto Protocol to limit greenhouse-gas emissions, saying it would hurt the economy.

• Favors storing used reactor fuel from commercial plants in Nevada bedrock.

• Seeks a "Clean Skies Initiative" to cut power plant emissions.

Kerry

• Set goal of 20 percent of energy supplied by renewable sources by 2020. Invest $10 billion in automobile fuel efficiency, $5 billion in hydrogen research, and $10 billion in clean coal. Opposes oil drilling in ANWR.

• Favors clearing brush and timber only around communities to prevent fires.

• Voted against Kyoto Protocol, but wrote legislation to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.

• Favors keeping used reactor fuel at commercial plants.

• Pledges tougher enforcement of air pollution laws. Would lead a "restore America's waters" campaign to protect rivers, lakes, and reservoirs.

Sources: Campaign websites, AP

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