Environment tussles return after national pall

White House admits energy company influence, sparking return to rough-and-tumble over nature and development.

In the long-ago world before Sept. 11, one of the biggest political tussles in Washington involved the environment. Global warming and the Kyoto treaty, arsenic levels in water, protections for roadless areas in national forests - these issues and many more pitted President Bush against activists and their congressional champions.

But the terrorist airplane and anthrax attacks concentrated public attention on defending a homeland in which Americans themselves were pictured as an endangered species.

Protection of American values and national security meant reducing oil imports, the president asserted, and that meant drilling for more oil in Alaska's wildlife refuge. Normally deep-green groups lowered their voices and adopted red-white-and-blue hues.

"The truly patriotic course of action is not to plunder the lands we have inherited," declared the Wilderness Society. "They are a central part of what makes our country worth fighting for."

But as the rally-round-the-flag fades, the environment is reemerging as a major point of contention, which is likely to increase as the 2002 elections approach.

The administration has quietly begun reversing some important Clinton initiatives on the environment - making it easier to mine for gold in fragile Western deserts, for example, and allowing more access for snowmobiles and other off-road vehicles in parklands and national monument areas.

Knowing that most Americans still favor environmental protection, however, the White House also is taking steps to improve its less-than-green image. This week, Solicitor General Theodore Olsen argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of the environment and against development in an important property-rights case involving protections for Lake Tahoe. The administration also has upheld Clinton initiatives to prohibit fishing near marine refuges and clean up diesel pollution.

On these and other issues, major environmental groups have found themselves in the unusual position of lauding Mr. Bush. When the Environmental Protection Agency, under Bush-appointee Christine Todd Whitman, ruled last month that poisonous PCBs should be dredged from the Hudson River in New York (which industry opposed), environmentalist applauded.

"We thank Administrator Whitman for doing the right thing," said Frances Beinecke, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

But mostly the battle pitting environmental protection against economic development is heating up.

Some of it has to do with important regional differences that Bush must try to reconcile while pushing his version of national energy policy, emphasizing supply over conservation. Here, opponents include not only environmental groups, but also powerful state lawmakers and officials.

For example, the administration is considering relaxing federal clean-air standards so that power plants can expand their electrical generating capacity without having to spend prohibitive amounts on pollution controls.

But this week in Washington, attorneys general from nine Northeastern states said they would sue the federal government if the Clean Air Act is weakened.

"We will absolutely go to court to forestall these new rules and regulations," New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer said Tuesday.

Also this week, the administration revealed information confirming suspicions energy-producing industries may have been influential in crafting Bush's energy policy.

A letter to Congress from Vice President Dick Cheney's office acknowledged that Mr. Cheney or his aides met six times last year with representatives of the energy marketing firm Enron Corp., including the day before Mr. Cheney let it be known that the administration would not support price caps on wholesale energy as a means of relieving California's energy crisis.

For months, environmentalists, members of Congress, and the General Accounting Office (the investigative arm of Congress) had been pressuring the administration to reveal whose advice it had sought on energy policy. Until now, energy task force head Cheney had refused to specify.

Given Houston-based Enron's recent controversial bankruptcy (the largest in US history), this week's revelation does not help the administration.

Enron CEO Ken Lay has been among Bush's top political supporters. According to the Center for Public Integrity, Enron directors and employees have given Bush $623,000 in political contributions over the years.

In a letter to the vice president this week, Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of Calif., senior Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, says Cheney's response "raises additional questions about the extent to which Enron may have influenced the administration's energy policies or provided information about its own operations." The Cheney letter, he added, "shows that the access provided to Enron far exceeded the access provided by the White House to other parties interested in energy policy." Environmentalists had complained they were shut out of energy-policy deliberations.

With Republican control of the US Senate, the administration might have had an easier time winning congressional approval of its environmental and energy policies. But when Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont switched from Republican to Independent, Democrats gained control of the upper chamber and Jeffords - a strong supporter of the environment - became chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

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