With the newly reelected Bush administration backed up by a tighter GOP grip on Congress, the coming political season could become a watershed mark for environmental protection and energy policy. As a result, federal laws and regulations dealing with everything from endangered species and forest protection to air and water pollution to oil and gas drilling, are likely to see a rigorous shaking out.
The administration is eager to achieve things denied it during President Bush's first term: pumping oil out of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), allowing loggers access to millions of acres of roadless national forest land, easing Clean Air Act restrictions on some pollutants, making it easier to extract oil and gas in the Rocky Mountains, and passing an energy bill put together by Vice President Dick Cheney with help from the energy industry.
The election dust had barely settled before activity on environmental issues began. Monday was the deadline for public comment on the administration's rollback of protections for national forest roadless areas ordered by former President Bill Clinton. Tuesday, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona held Commerce Committee hearings on climate change. Wednesday brought hearings in the House on mercury pollution.
The resignations this week of Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, who oversees forest policy, only served to stir the political pot. Confirmation hearings for their predecessors are sure to include pointed questions about administration goals.
This is likely to include an examination of the successes and failures of the Endangered Species Act - one of the strongest tools environmentalists have to protect wildlife habitat. But administration officials and lawmakers chairing key congressional committees say the law has been too restrictive of ranchers, farmers, and developers.
The wilds of Alaska are a prime focus. For more than a decade, the political battle over Arctic oil has raged. Oil companies say their newer methods of drilling wouldn't harm the habitat for caribou, polar bears, and snow geese in ANWR's coastal plain. So far, environmentalists, backed by just enough lawmakers, including some key Republicans, have managed to block an activity they say would damage the wildlife refuge for less than a year's worth of oil.
But Republican gains in House and Senate, plus war in an oil-rich part of the world and $2-per-gallon gas, may change all that. "With oil trading at nearly $50 a barrel, the case for ANWR is more compelling than ever," says Senate Energy Committee chairman Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico. If Republicans attach the ANWR-drilling measure to the federal budget bill, minority Democrats would not be able to filibuster it back to the shelf.
The 'greening' of state laws
While Washington is the main focus of federal policy, what actually happens regarding environmental protection increasingly is happening elsewhere.
California, with more autos per capita than anyplace on the planet (and a Republican governor considerably "greener" than the president), is limiting the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. Attorneys general from eight states have filed suit to force major utilities to cut emissions of carbon dioxide.
Mr. Bush may have won a majority of the popular vote and most states in the Electoral College, but that does not mean that voters in "red" states rejected environmental protection. Montana voters said "no" to a kind of gold mining that uses cyanide. Coloradans approved a measure requiring major public utilities to get larger portions of their electricity from renewable sources. "When citizens had the chance to vote directly on protecting natural areas ... and other environment matters, sizable majorities voted in favor of them," says Ben Beach, a spokesman for the Wilderness Society.
Still, activists can read election returns as well as anybody, and, like Democrats, they're rethinking their priorities and their image. In a conference call with reporters this week, National Wildlife Federation president Larry Schweiger stressed the interests of "hunters and anglers" in environmental protection. In a nod to the "values" dimension of the recent election, organizers of the call included Episcopal Bishop William Gregg of eastern Oregon as one of the speakers urging continued protection of roadless areas in national forests.
Meanwhile, an increasing number of companies are working up their own "trading" plans to reduce emissions of carbon, mercury, and other pollutants - mainly because they need to do so in order to meet international standards, regardless of whether the Bush White House supports those standards.
For example, a year ago, the Chicago Climate Exchange began trading carbon dioxide emission reductions on a spot market basis. Member companies agreed to reduce their greenhouse emissions by 4 percent by 2006 from their 1998 to 2001 emission average. This would be a "cap" on their emissions and they could then trade the savings on the exchange. Next month, the Chicago exchange will begin trading on sulfur dioxide futures, and it expects to trade mercury emissions and even endangered species. The US sulfur market is already worth more than the US wheat market. "Americans always felt their air and water was free," says Richard Sandor, CEO and founder of the exchange. "But that's just not true anymore and we felt like we could apply that to markets."
• Staff writer Ron Scherer in New York contributed to this report.