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Synthesis/Regeneration 39   (Winter 2006)

Thinking Politically

The Democrats’ Environmental Record

by Joshua Frank

George W. Bush’s environmental record can be summed up in one simple word: devastating. Not only has President Bush gutted numerous environmental laws, including the Clean Air and Water Acts, but he has also set a new precedent by disregarding the world’s top scientists and the Pentagon, whose concerns about the rate of global warming grow graver by the day.

As Mark Townsend and Paul Harris reported for the UK Observer in February 2004:

[The Pentagon report] predicts that abrupt climate change could bring the planet to the edge of anarchy as countries develop a nuclear threat to defend and secure dwindling food, water, and energy supplies. The threat to global stability vastly eclipses that of terrorism, say the few experts privy to its contents.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) even admits that climate change is being exacerbated by American’s consumptive culture.

What has changed in the last few hundred years is the additional release of carbon dioxide by human activities. Fossil fuels burned to run cars and trucks, heat homes and businesses, and power factories are responsible for about 98% of US carbon dioxide emissions, 24% of methane emissions, and 18% of nitrous oxide emissions. Increased agriculture, deforestation, landfills, industrial production, and mining also contribute a significant share of emissions. In 1997, the United States emitted about one-fifth of total global greenhouse gases.

It was easy for Bush to back out of the Kyoto Protocol when Al Gore and Bill Clinton undermined the agreement in the late 1990s. “Signing the Protocol, while an important step forward, imposes no obligations on the United States. The Protocol becomes binding only with the advice and consent of the US Senate,” Gore said at the time. “As we have said before, we will not submit the Protocol for ratification without the meaningful participation of key developing countries in efforts to address climate change.” Sadly, Gore stood by his promise.

Although Kyoto was a gigantic step forward in addressing global warming, the Democratic Party collectively opposed the watered down version of the Protocol. They did so to avoid alienating their labor base, who worried that new environmental laws would shift jobs to developing nations with weaker environmental regulations. Hence, Kyoto’s derailment and the Democrats’ failed challenge to Bush’s misdeeds.

Dirty energy

With that kind of opposition, it is little wonder that Bush had no qualms about moving forward with his dirty energy plan, which became known as the “Energy Policy Act of 2003.” Bush’s bill called for a slash in renewable energy funding and an increase in fossil fuel consumption. The bill was authored by Vice President Cheney’s Energy Task Force, a reported 39 oil lobbyists and executives who met to draft the legislation.

It was easy for Bush to back out of the Kyoto Protocol when Al Gore and Bill Clinton undermined the agreement in the late 1990s.

Over 30 Democrats in the House of Representatives voted in favor of Bush’s legislation, while eight others decided not to cast a vote on the measure, which ultimately passed effortlessly through the House. The Senate Democrats stepped up their opposition, halting the bill. Ultimately, they came back with a horrid version of their own, which 36 Democrats, including ranking leaders such as Senator Tom Daschle, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, and John Edwards of North Carolina voted for.

Offering few variations from the Task Force’s original draft, the Democratic version set aside almost $2 billion for big coal companies and $1 billion in tax breaks for nuclear power expansion in addition to over $5 billion in handouts and tax cuts for the oil industry. The bill also earmarked over $20 billion for the building of an oil pipeline from Alaska to the lower 48 states.

The Heritage Foundation, a neoconservative-laden right-wing think tank based in Washington, DC, boasted of the Democrats’ rewrite:

[The] bill includes provisions that strengthen the nation’s electricity system and, at the margins, narrows the gap between supply and demand. There are no: Mandatory renewable portfolio standards; Climate change initiatives; Statutory increases in corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards; and Mandatory regional transmission organizations (RTOs).

The strip club

Like his predecessors Bill Clinton and Al Gore, President Bush saw nothing wrong with the disastrous practice of hilltop strip mining (mountain-top removal) and overturned a federal ruling that had banned the practice during the Clinton years, despite the dismay of Al Gore. The push to lift the ban came from the stubborn Steven Griles, a scion of the mining industry and Interior Secretary Gale Norton’s top advisor in Washington.

Democrats again offered little in the way of opposition, as they have historically backed the disastrous mining practice.

Then, in another bold move, the Bush administration pandered to corporate timber barons and authored a new anti-forest plan, ironically entitled the “Healthy Forests Initiative,” which mirrored Clinton’s chainsaw-happy Salvage Rider Act of 1995. Democratic senators, including Oregon’s Ron Wyden and California’s Dianne Feinstein, eventually rewrote Bush’s legislation. It was little surprise that Wyden supported the corporate timber bill, for no other senator receives more loot from the timber industry.

Logging without laws

The Clinton administration’s Salvage Rider, known to radical environmentalists as the “Logging without Laws” rider, was perhaps the most gruesome legislation ever enacted under the pretext of preserving ecosystem health. Like the Bush-Wyden-Feinstein forest initiative, Clinton’s act was chock-full of deception and special interest pandering.

In fact, Mark Rey, a former lobbyist for the timber industry and head of the United States Forest Service under Bush, authored the “Healthy Forest” plan and Clinton’s salvage bill while working as an aide for Republican Senator Larry Craig of Idaho. “Like Bush’s so-called ‘Healthy Forest Initiative,’ the Salvage Rider temporarily exempted salvage timber sales on federal forest lands from environmental and wildlife laws, administrative appeals, and judicial review,” contends the Wilderness Society.

The Salvage Rider directed the Forest Service to cut old-growth timber in the Pacific Northwest that the agency had proposed for sale but subsequently withdrew due to environmental concerns, endangered species listings, and court rulings. Bush’s initiative also aims to increase logging of old-growth trees in the Pacific Northwest.

Clinton could have exercised presidential authority to force the relevant agencies to abandon all timber contracts that stemmed from the Salvage Rider; he never flexed his muscle and instead sat by as the forests were subjected to annihilation. Thousands of acres of healthy forest land across the West were rampaged.

Washington’s Colville National Forest saw the clear cutting of over 4,000 acres; thousands more in Montana’s Yaak River Basin and hundreds of acres of pristine forest land in Idaho, while the endangered Mexican Spotted Owl habitat in Arizona fell victim to corporate interests. Old-growth trees in Washington’s majestic Olympic Peninsula, home to wild Steelhead, endangered Sockeye salmon, and threatened Marbled Murrelet, were cut with unremitting provocation by the US Forest Service. The assault on nature continued with Clinton’s blessing.

Perhaps the greatest irony is that the forests have fared far better under Bush than they did under his Democrat predecessor.

Just before Bush announced his version of Clinton’s salvage law, Democratic Senator Tom Daschle beat him to the punch, slipping his own crass language into a defense appropriations bill in the summer of 2002. Daschle’s legal jargon, backed by the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, allowed unrestrained logging on American Indian land in his home state of South Dakota. These very holy lands, which the Sioux call Paha Sapa, were once a visionary refuge for Lakota elders, including Crazy Horse and Black Elk. As journalist Jeffrey St. Clair wrote:

[The plan will allow] timber companies to begin logging in the Beaver Park roadless area and in the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve. These two areas harbor some of the last remaining stands of old-growth forest in the Black Hills. All of these timber sales will be shielded from environmental lawsuits, even from organizations that objected to the deal ... The logging plan was consecrated in the name of fire prevention. The goal of the bill, Daschle said, “is to reduce the risk of forest fire by getting [logging] crews on the ground as quickly as possible to start thinning.” It’s long been the self-serving contention of the timber lobby that the only way to prevent forest fires is to log them first.

A product of Clinton and Daschle’s cunning style, Bush’s own forest plan, supported by the overwhelming majority of Democrats in the Senate, authorized the use of over $760 million in hopes of preventing wild fires.

The legislation, renamed the “Healthy Forests Restoration Act,” accomplishes no such thing, of course. Instead, the bill sanctions the pillage of over 2.5 million acres of Federal forest land by 2012, including the single largest US Forest Service timber sale in modern history, where 30 square miles of Federal lands in Oregon, named the “Biscuit Fire Recovery Project,” could be logged, despite over 23,000 public statements denouncing the proposal.

With only thirteen casting a “no” vote on the grisly legislation, Democrats folded big time, backing the bill they should have been working tooth-and-nail to defeat. Incidentally, John Kerry forgot to show up for work that day and never voted.

Although the Democrats caved to Bush’s demands, some environmentalists claim that Clinton’s policies have been more detrimental to US forests than Bush’s. Of course you’ll never hear this from any mainstream environmental group. As veteran forest activist Michael Donnelly of Salem, Oregon, wrote in CounterPunch in December 2003:

Perhaps the greatest irony is that the forests have fared far better under Bush than they did under his Democrat predecessor. Under Clinton’s [Salvage Rider] plan, some 1.1 billion board feet of Ancient Forest stumps were authorized annually. Much to the industry’s chagrin, under Bush, around 200 million per year has been cut. Already, that means that 2.7 billion board feet less has been cut under Bush than would have been under a Gore administration with the Big Greens’ usual silence regarding Democrat stump-creation.

If Bush were to continue at this rate for a total of eight years, then the “total cut of Ancient Forests will be 1.6 billion board feet, exactly what was cut in just one year under Clinton’s 1995 Salvage Rider,” Donnelly contends. The decision will open these areas to road development, and eventually mass logging and oil procurement, if state governors fail to petition the initiatives. Time will tell whether Democratic governors will stand up for the rights of our national forests and federal wilderness areas—but don’t count on it. Their record isn’t much better than their wretched opposition’s. In some aspects the Democrats may be marginally better than the Republicans.

A slight variation in beliefs won’t win elections, however; it’s policy on the ground that matters. And the Democrats have not offered a substantial alternative to the Republican agenda regarding the environment.

This is an excerpt from Joshua Frank’s brand new book, Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush, which has just been released by Common Courage Press. Josh can be reached at Joshua@BrickBurner.org

[21 feb 06]

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