Bush's reversal on utility emissions divides cabinet

By deciding not to cut CO2 pollutants, he boosts business but angers environmentalists.

In one of its first major internal clashes over policy, the Bush administration has sided with energy interests over the environment - exposing tensions within the cabinet and undercutting bipartisanship on Capitol Hill.

By deciding not to regulate power-plant emissions of carbon dioxide, the president this week sided with some of his most ardent backers in the business community and reversed a campaign pledge.

Within the administration, EPA administrator Christine Whitman and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, along with some key Republican lawmakers, have said that climate change due to man-made causes is clearly happening and needs to be addressed. Bipartisan groups in the House and Senate will introduce legislation dealing with CO2 emissions today.

Others in the administration with backgrounds in oil production, automobile manufacturing, and mining - including Vice President Dick Cheney, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, and Interior Department Assistant Secretary J. Steven Griles - have been more inclined to question the science of global warming while resisting stiff measures to limit greenhouse gases.

Campaign promise

During the presidential campaign, Mr. Bush had promised that "with the help of Congress, environmental groups, and industry, we will require all power plants to meet clean-air standards in order to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury, and carbon dioxide within a reasonable period of time."

But in a letter to four Republican senators this week, Bush emphasized "the incomplete state of scientific knowledge of [its] causes."

And he cited the energy crisis in California as a reason not to hamper coal-fired power plants, since this could force a shift to even more expensive natural gas - even though California gets less than 15 percent of its electrical energy from coal.

Bush's change of heart represents a victory for many large manufacturing and resource-extraction industries, whose lobbyists had become alarmed at Ms. Whitman's recent pronouncements on the issue.

To environmentalists, the reason for the change is clear. "When big business banged on the White House door, President Bush made a policy U-turn," says Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club.

Up until now, many activists had been pleasantly surprised at the administration's early attitude toward the environment.

During her recent confirmation hearings, Whitman said, "There's no question but that global warming is a real phenomenon," adding that "this president is very sensitive to the issue of global warming."

Also, the White House announced that it would not overturn President Clinton's protection of large areas of the West as national monuments. It has chosen to support the Clinton plan to regulate diesel engine emissions. Interior Secretary Gale Norton seems to be less than the property-rights zealot opponents had painted her during confirmation hearings.

Predictable move?

Yet in some ways, Bush's announcement on carbon dioxide this week should not have come as a surprise.

Even though CO2 is the major greenhouse gas causing global warming, it is not a "pollutant" under the Clean Air Act. White House aides said it was "a mistake" for Bush to have included it among the other substances in his campaign rhetoric.

And with the California crisis, it has been clear where the administration stands. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham has resisted the call of Western governors to put a cap on wholesale energy prices, preferring instead to emphasize increasing ways to produce energy - including removing some environmental restrictions.

The CO2 flap this week is likely to be a relatively minor precursor to an even bigger issue: the administration push to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil drilling. Democrats and environmentalists sharply oppose the move.

Here, there is no sign of differing opinions among Bush team members.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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