One of the most hard-fought political debates of the past 30 years has been whether balancing environmental protection and growing the economy is a zero-sum game. Does one necessarily come at the expense of the other?
As the Bush administration fashions its domestic policies, this struggle between competing values is the most intense it's been since the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Like Mr. Reagan, George W. Bush is a former Western governor who resisted federal regulation and saw natural resources as something to be used.
Clearly, President Bush's early moves indicate greater weight on the economic side of the scale - although his team argues such an adjustment does not imperil the environment. Mr. Bush's recent turnabout on carbon dioxide emissions tied to global warming, and the push to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration, illustrate the point. Add to that talk of mineral development on protected federal lands, and a likely reversal on new protections for pristine roadless areas out West.
The faltering US economy and the energy crisis in the West, administration officials say, give added urgency to developing the nation's natural resources.
Still, there is some tacit acknowledgment of an economy- environment tradeoff.
"We have a choice in this country of having the lights on or, at least in the short run, having more carbon dioxide," White House chief economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey said in a weekend television interview. "We need more refineries. We need more power plants. We need more pipelines."
Administration officials and the business interests that support them say this can be done without undue harm to nature.
"The public can rest assured that energy development will not come at the expense of the environment," says Thomas Donohue, president of the United States Chamber of Commerce. "Indeed, America has the cleanest environment of all the developed nations due in large part to the nearly $2 trillion investment the business community has made in environmental protection since 1972."
Such assurances, however, are not necessarily comforting to many in the environmental movement. They say the Bush administration's moves so far amount to an overeagerness to please business.
Bush has said he will not reverse President Clinton's recent designation of national monuments, but he has left open the possibility of mineral development there. In a lawsuit brought by timber companies and the State of Idaho, the administration has indicated it might allow some logging in 58 million acres of national forest that Mr. Clinton (after two years of public hearings and 1.6 million public comments) had ordered should remain roadless.
Neither did environmentalists take solace last week when Bush, reversing a campaign position, said carbon dioxide (the principle greenhouse gas tied to global warming) should not be regulated under the Clean Air Act.
This week, the House of Representatives begins markup of the administration's budget blueprint, which assumes there will be revenues from the sale of oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska.
Speaking Monday at a "national energy summit" convened by the US Chamber of Commerce, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham emphasized the need for new energy supplies.
"If [electricity] demand grows at just the same pace as during the last decade, we'll need nearly 1,900 new plants by 2020 - or more than 90 every year - just to keep pace," he said. And referring to Bush's new position on carbon-dioxide emissions, Mr. Abraham said "coal must continue to play a major role."
At the same time, he described as a "myth" the assertion that "it is impossible to balance energy exploration and environmental protection." This same point is made by Interior Secretary Gale Norton, EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, and the president himself. It is one that reflects not only a personal philosophy in which environmental and economic goals are not mutually exclusive, but one that jibes with today's political realities.
Wirthlin Worldwide, a polling firm associated with Republican causes, has reported that "2 out of 3 Americans say we need to protect the environment no matter what it costs." Democrats are more likely to hold this view (76 percent), but most Republicans (52 percent) do as well.
Most polls show Americans reluctant to drill for oil in ANWR.
The debate over balancing environmental and economic values has been moving to middle ground in recent years. Some environmentalists see the need to factor ecological worth into formulas used to gauge economic well-being, and economists are beginning to listen. At the same time, "market environmentalism" - the view that private property owners often know best how to act as stewards of nature - is becoming more widely accepted.
For example, Environmental Defense, a national environmental research and advocacy organization, is working with the Political Economy Research Center (PERC) to protect fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico. Both want to see "individual transferable quotas" as a management tool to reduce overfishing. Such a scheme would allow fishermen to buy and sell permits.
Based in Bozeman, Mont., PERC urges a "free-market environmentalism." This means reducing regulation as much as possible - something most environmental activists are wary of. But it also means ending government subsidies, such as below-cost timber sales on national forests, which environmentalists oppose. Terry Anderson of PERC, an economist at Montana State University, was one of Bush's advisers on natural-resource issues during the presidential transition.
In his address to Congress last month, Bush had little to say about the environment. He summed up his specific goals in one paragraph referring to toxic industrial sites, better upkeep of national parks, and spending on the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. The economy received more attention.
In addition to a move toward market-based means of environmental protection, the Bush administration is expected to hand more authority for environmental safeguarding to state and local officials. This trend grew under the Clinton administration and is likely to accelerate under Bush.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor