Natural Resources Defense Council

Rewriting the Rules, Year-End Report 2002

The Bush Administration's Assault on the Environment

Executive Summary

Although our landmark environmental laws are among the most popular
and successful legislative efforts of the last 40 years, for the
second year in a row they are under siege by the Bush administration.
The timing could hardly be worse.

As scientists continue to bolster the case for prompt action to deal
with pressing environmental challenges like global warming and
deterioration of our oceans, America's environmental laws face a
fundamental threat more sweeping and dangerous than any since the
dawn of the modern environmental movement in 1970. Environmental
protections have been challenged before, most notably in the James
Watt era and in the Newt Gingrich Congress, but never through a
campaign as far-reaching and destructive as the threat posed today by
the Bush administration and the 108th Congress.

One of the most immediate results of the recent mid-term
congressional elections has been an acceleration of the
administration's virulent effort to weaken key environmental
safeguards. In the short period since the election, federal agencies
have announced seismic policy shifts in areas ranging from air and
water pollution, to forest and wildlife protection, to stewardship of
America's public lands. [1]

This report examines the continuing environmental retreats by the
Bush administration over the past year, and especially the escalating
assault in the few short months since the 2002 congressional
elections. It is not a pretty picture. Over the past year
environmental programs have been peppered with more than 100
weakening changes, affecting every program that protects our air,
water, forests, wetlands, public health, wildlife and pristine wild
areas. The following pages examine these actions. Here are a few of
the most troubling examples:

In late November, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) moved to
weaken a fundamental compromise that traces back to original 1970
Clean Air Act. Under that law, new factories must install tough air
pollution controls, while facilities already operating at the time of
the law's enactment were allowed to continue largely uncontrolled
until they expanded or modernized, at which time they would have to
install state-of-the-art pollution controls. After 32 years, most of
the exempted facilities still operating are finally due for
modernization and tougher controls. But, by changing the so-called
new-source-review program, the EPA seeks to let the nation's oldest
and dirtiest power plants and refineries off the hook, allowing them
to expand and modernize without installing updated pollution controls.

Shortly before Thanksgiving, the Forest Service proposed to eliminate
the fundamental requirement that forest management plans protect
wildlife, and to reduce public involvement in forest planning. Only
weeks later, in December, the Forest Service proposed major changes
to rules that govern clearcutting in national forests. In the name of
"healthy forests" and "fire prevention," nearly unlimited
clearcutting would be allowed in pristine national forests.
Long-standing mandates for public input and environmental review
would be eliminated.

In early January 2003, the EPA announced plans for new policies to
greatly reduce the number of wetlands and waterways protected by the
Clean Water Act. Only a month earlier, the EPA had issued new rules
governing factory farms that failed to address the immense water
pollution problems caused by millions of tons of untreated animal
waste that routinely contaminate rivers, streams, and waterways. The
rules seek to protect corporate agriculture interests from financial
liability for illegal spills and groundwater contamination. These
were only the latest in a deluge of assaults on the Clean Water Act
that include an effort to exempt mining waste from regulation as a
pollutant under federal law and a series of additional measures to
undercut wetlands protection.

Through a series of proposals over the past six months, the
President's Council on Environmental Quality and other Bush
administration agencies have moved to undercut the grandfather of
environmental statutes, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
NEPA requires public participation in key environmental decisions,
and mandates the preparation of environmental impact statements for
federal actions with potentially important environmental
repercussions. In recent proposals, the Bush administration has
sought to scaleback long-standing requirements for environmental
reviews and public participation applying to highway construction,
offshore oil development, and logging in our national forests.

It is clear that every federal agency with authority over
environmental programs has been enlisted in a coordinated effort to
help oil, coal, logging, mining, chemical, and auto companies and
others promote their short-term profits at the expense of America's
public health and natural heritage. The agencies include the Interior
Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Forest Service,
the Energy Department, and the Army Corps of Engineers.

This onslaught is being quietly coordinated through the White House.
The White House Office of Management and Budget -- or more precisely
OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs -- has been busy
identifying environmental safeguards that industry finds most
objectionable, strong-arming agencies to review and weaken these
programs, and promoting changes in scientific and economic
assumptions that twist the regulatory process to favor industry. The
OMB "hit list" of targeted environmental safeguards assembled early
in 2001 proved to be an accurate indication of the year's most
destructive Bush administration environmental assaults. [2]

Although Congress entrusted the heads of the federal environmental
agencies with authority to carry out environmental laws, the director
of OIRA, John Graham, has effectively assumed that responsibility. He
has routinely rejected agency actions that are fully consistent with
environmental laws but do adequately reflect his industry orientation
and conservative ideology. [3]

America's environmental laws have improved our quality of life in
fundamental ways. They have brought us cleaner air in our cities and
parks, cleaner water in our lakes and rivers, and lower lead levels
in our children's blood. They have protected the stratospheric ozone
layer and, of course, preserved some of the last remaining wild
places that make America special and saved threatened wildlife such
as the bald eagle.

Yet the Bush administration's assault rolls on even as polls continue
to show overwhelming support for environmental protection. Indeed, a
November New York Times/CBS News poll found that 62 percent of the
American public believes the federal government "should be doing more
to protect our environment" while only 7 percent feel that it "should
be doing less." [4]

The White House is fully aware of just how unpopular its "seven
percent" agenda, and makes every effort to minimize the public's
awareness. The administration routinely times its major environmental
announcements to make it as difficult as possible for the news media
to report on them, usually releasing information late on Friday
afternoons. Especially important pronouncements are saved for big
holidays when most reporters are unavailable.

For example, the EPA announced its most recent changes in clean air
regulations on the afternoon before Thanksgiving and on New Year's
Eve. In a further effort to keep the stories out of the news, EPA
Administrator Christine Whitman did not make the announcements, nor
did she attend the agency's press conferences. The administration's
penchant for minimizing public scrutiny explains why Whitman also has
declined invitations to defend her clean air actions on Sunday
morning television news shows. To mask the real effect of its
environmental proposals, the administration often uses misleading
code words such as "steamlining" or "reforming," instead of
"weakening," and "thinning" instead of "logging."

Some may argue that NRDC's characterization overstates the situation.
After all, the laws under siege by the Bush administration are, for
the time being at least, fully intact. But we cannot ignore the
reality of what it takes for our laws to work to protect our
environment. Laws themselves cannot change industry behavior without
an effective infrastructure to assure that they are interpreted in
good faith, monitored and fully enforced. In other words, the laws
must be credible to be effective, and maintaining that credibility
should be a central goal of federal agencies. But, if the agencies
work to undermine, rather than bolster, the credibility of our
environmental laws, these vital measures become mere words on paper,
increasingly irrelevant to what polluters, developers, and mining and
logging companies are required to do in the real world.

This is the threat we face today as agencies issue rulemakings and
guidance that continually re-interprets laws to require less from
industry, and as it becomes increasingly clear that the cop is off
the beat where enforcement of our environmental laws is concerned.
Penalties for violations of environmental laws have decreased
precipitously since the Bush administration took office, with the
amount of the average penalty dropping by more than half. The EPA's
two most senior career enforcement officials resigned in 2002 after
decades of service. Both cited the administration's refusal to
enforce environmental protections as the reason for their departure.

Now, more than ever, our government should be addressing pressing
problems such as global warming, sprawl, and the loss of wildlife and
natural areas -- not retreating on the environment. But, as described
in the pages that follow, another year has passed during which the
Bush administration has directed its time and energy to moving
America backwards on our most basic environmental safeguards.

To view the rest of the report: