Bush's critics and defenders spar over his environmental legacy

President George W. Bush leaves office tomorrow after eight controversial years attempting to rewrite the nation's environmental laws and set a more industry-friendly tone on energy policy.

Over two terms, Bush's administration drew the wrath of Democrats, environmentalists and the occasional world leader. When it came to global warming policy, it proposed alternatives. On land use, air pollution and endangered species measures, it filed lawsuits.

Looking back, Bush's fiercest critics have little nice to say about his environmental record.

"The worst president in history in terms of the environment," Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said last week in an interview.

"Eight years of environmental abuse is finally coming to its bitter end, but its impact will take years to overcome," said Karen Wayland, legislative director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a lead plaintiff in several court challenges to the Bush administration.

Bush arrived in the White House in January 2001 pledging that he would be a "compassionate conservative," raising expectations that he would follow his father's lead and build bipartisan success on big-ticket environmental issues. Among President George H.W. Bush's accomplishments was the signing of the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments.

But the disputed 2000 election gave way to several contentious decisions early in George W. Bush's first term. First came the awkward handling of a last-minute Clinton administration regulation limiting arsenic in drinking water.

Then came Bush's rejection of the Kyoto Protocol and a flip-flop on a campaign pledge to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.


Both moves helped set the tone of energy and environmental policy over the next eight years, even as Bush's agenda took a sharp detour toward national defense and war in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

"Those two immediately polarized the situation such that when the administration did do something positive on the environment, they got absolutely no credit because environmentalists just perceived the administration as essentially the enemy," said Robert Stavins, director of Harvard University's Environmental Economics Program.

Democrats and environmentalists have unloaded often on the Bush administration, citing whistleblower accounts of scientific censorship and court rulings determining that U.S. EPA, the Interior Department and other government agencies had overstepped their legal bounds.

"The administration of the EPA under Administrator [Stephen] Johnson has been a disgrace to our country," Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said last week during confirmation hearings for President-elect Barack Obama's environment team. "It has harmed America. And it has grievously harmed this agency and the well-meaning and honorable people who try to work in it."

"The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals has had a field day beating up on the Bush administration's fossil fuel emissions regulations, and rightly so," said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.).

Boxer found fault with the Bush administration's final decisions on the environment, which she said bore a striking resemblance to earlier efforts. "Those midnight regulations, those rollbacks of the last eight years, I asked my staff, 'How many rollbacks?' And they said, 'If you listed the rollbacks, they'd go from probably one end of Dirksen [Senate office building] all the way to the other,'" she said.

'You can try to be popular'

In recent weeks, Bush and his closest advisers have defended their record by ticking off bipartisan accomplishments. The president himself insisted during his final White House press conference earlier this month that he had stuck to his core principles on foreign policy.

"Listen, I tell people, yes, you can try to be popular," Bush said. "In certain quarters in Europe, you can be popular by blaming every Middle Eastern problem on Israel. Or you can be popular by joining the International Criminal Court. I guess I could have been popular by accepting Kyoto, which I felt was a flawed treaty, and proposed something different and more constructive."

James Connaughton, the chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality since late 2001, said there are successes to be found in everything from air pollution regulations to marine preservation and development of once-abandoned brownfield sites.

"I'll take all the criticisms of the last eight years with the satisfaction that we produced results that even some of our harshest critics in the environmental community have actually in the end willingly embraced," Connaughton said in an interview last week.

Indeed, Bush's critics have found some bright spots. "He did do one good thing," Boxer said, citing the 190,000 square miles of new monuments in the Pacific. "Oceans."

Carper credited the Bush administration with helping to clean up diesel pollution from ships, trains and other heavy-duty vehicles.

Connaughton maintained that the ocean protections, diesel regulations and two new energy laws -- which include mandates to curb carbon emissions and the first fuel economy standards for motor vehicles in decades -- merit a renewed study of Bush's environmental record.

"It's largely unnoticed, on the philosophy of 1,000 planes landed safely today," he said. "It's the controversies that didn't happen that's going to make them the lasting legacy. Their success is assured because of the consensus that we were able to achieve."

Jim DiPeso of Republicans for Environmental Protection credits Bush for his Pacific Ocean monuments. But he said that is not enough to overcome eight years of disappointment.

"Bush often professes to admire [President Theodore Roosevelt]," DiPeso said in a recent article published in Grist, an online environmental magazine. "Had Bush done on land and in the air -- by actively leading the country toward a carbon-free future -- what he did at sea, his administration's conservation record would have borne favorable comparison to Roosevelt's. Unfortunately, politics too often intervened and opportunities too often were missed. What might have been cannot erase what actually occurred."

Sizing up the facts

Bush officials often cite as accomplishments some of the same regulations and decisions that have been discounted by their opponents.

For example, Connaughton praises new federal air quality standards on ozone and fine particulate matter, even though EPA's own panel of scientific advisers recommended more stringent limits. And he touted the upward of 3.7 million acres of protected wetlands, even though environmentalists have long found fault with the math behind that claim.

These are not isolated examples. During Bush's first term, he promoted "Clear Skies" legislation to curb power plant pollution. Opponents reacted with incredulity because the administration's bill, which died after failing to win a majority in a Republican-led Senate committee, also included several industry-driven requests to repeal key pieces of the Clean Air Act.

On global warming, Bush steadily resisted putting mandatory limits in place to curb global warming. His EPA rejected California's bid to regulate greenhouse gases from motor vehicles. And White House officials raised doubts and censored documents showing a scientific link between greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.

But Connaughton insists that the Bush administration had an active climate policy that helped push world leaders to agree on a December 2009 schedule for a new post-Kyoto treaty. And the White House adviser also insists that Bush helped to establish a price signal for greenhouse gas emissions by signing two energy laws and encouraging a raft of state-driven standards for renewable energy.

"I can translate all that into a CO2 price," he said.

The CEQ chairman also questions many of the other criticisms aimed at the Bush administration, including the complaint about scientific censorship.

"It's a point that comes up in every administration, and our friends in the Obama administration will hear it from opposing quarters as well," Connaughton said. "That criticism is almost never a criticism of the science. It's almost always a criticism of the policy choices."

Connaughton shrugs off the court defeats, including the Supreme Court's 5-4 opinion in April 2007 that slapped down the Bush-led EPA after it rejected any link between climate change and possible threats to public health or welfare.

"I look at the litigation as how relatively few losses there were in relation to the scores of victories," Connaughton said, pointing to Supreme Court decisions favoring the Bush administration on wetlands and the National Environmental Policy Act.

Several former Bush officials, including Christine Todd Whitman of EPA and Paul O'Neill from the Treasury Department, have pinned much of the blame on Vice President Dick Cheney and a Bush team stuck in political mode ever since it got to the White House.

"There was an organized movement to solidify the president's political base by appealing to the political right, which had elected George Bush," said Harvard's Stavins. "That was very, very bad news for more progressive voices on energy and the environment."

But Connaughton counters that it was Bush who made the big decisions.

"He was willing to take a strong stand against ineffective policy tools and change the status quo in favor of even bigger and bolder outcomes through more effective means," he said. "All too often, the commentary focused on what he was rejecting without realizing he was putting something in its place that'd be much bigger and more effective."

With an eye on Bush's legacy, Connaughton concluded, "But history will bear that out because history is singularly dedicated to the facts."



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