WASHINGTON -- President George W. Bush did an abrupt about face Tuesday, reversing a previous pledge to legislate limits on carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. power plants. Bush said such a rule would prove too costly, launching another in a slew of recent federal and state government attempts to roll back environmental protections in favor of controlling energy prices.
In a letter to four Republican Senators, Bush said any plan proposed by his administration to regulate power plant emissions would not include carbon dioxide (CO2).
"I do not believe... that the government should impose on power plants mandatory emissions reductions for carbon dioxide, which is not a 'pollutant' under the Clean Air Act," Bush wrote.
In a speech last September, Bush had vowed to require limits on emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, along with other power plant pollutants including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury. That pledge met strong criticism by industry and Congressional Republicans.
On March 6, Senators Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Larry Craig of Idaho, Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Pat Roberts of Kansas sent a letter to President Bush asking about his stance on global climate change, in light of his pledge to control CO2 emissions. The Senators expressed concern about the economic effects of a rule regulating CO2.
In his reply to the four Republicans, Bush cited a Department of Energy report which found that new limits on CO2 emissions "would lead to an even more dramatic shift from coal to natural gas for electric power generation and significantly higher electricity prices compared to scenarios in which only sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides were reduced."
"This is important new information that warrants a reevaluation, especially at a time of rising energy prices and a serious energy shortage," Bush wrote.
Bush's decision was met by sharp criticism from environmental groups, Congressional Democrats and even some Republicans who support attempts to control emissions of greenhouse gasses associated with global climate change.
Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the ranking Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, called Bush's move "disappointing" and "nearsighted." He warned that the failure to control CO2 emissions will have little effect on energy prices in hard hit California and other Western states, but could have a major effect on "our grandchildren and their children," if global warming is not curbed.
The presidential backpedal on CO2 limits is not the only governmental move being blamed on high energy prices. Bush and his cabinet members have hinted in recent weeks that they will seek to justify new oil, natural gas and coal explorations and extractions on protected public lands due to the perceived need for a larger, more secure domestic energy supply.
The most notorious example is the North Slope of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which Bush has pledged to open to oil exploration, a proposal to which environmental groups and much of the U.S. public strenuously object.
But other lands could be facing a loaded drill as well. During a media roundtable Tuesday, Bush said he will consider targeting other areas of the American West for new exploration to increase domestic production - even if the Arctic Refuge is opened to drilling.
"We'll be looking at all public lands," Bush said. "Obviously, there are some places where we're not going to put a drilling rig, some of the crown jewels of our environment. But there are some lands that are, to me, suitable for exploration."
Asked if that might include lands currently protected as national monuments, Bush indicated that "there are parts of the monument lands where we can explore without affecting the overall environment."
"There's a mentality that says you can't explore and protect land," Bush said. "We're going to change that attitude."
Other lands that could be targeted include roadless areas of national forests. The Bush administration has delayed implementation of a rule, six years in the making, that would protect remaining large tracts of national forests where no roads have been built.
That rule has been opposed most vehemently by the timber industry, but the oil, gas and coal industries also see the regulation as blocking access to potentially rich stores of energy.
And the federal government is not the only branch using the energy crisis to press for weakened environmental regulations. In California, the state hardest hit by energy shortages in recent months, Governor Gray Davis issued an executive order last week giving agencies the authority to suspend environmental and public health requirements that they determine are not "consistent with the prompt execution" of his directive to bring power sources on line more quickly.
"This order essentially gives a blank check to regulatory agencies to compromise environmental laws in the name of generating more power," said Bill Magavern, senior legislative representative for the Sierra Club California.
The order also allows power plants to extend their hours and emit more pollutants as long as they pay a discounted mitigation fee to the state.
"This order seems to target critical environmental and health protections as barriers to power generation. In fact, it has been repeatedly shown that air quality and other environmental laws did not contribute to the current energy crisis," said Tim Carmichael, executive director of the Coalition for Clean Air.
Today, Governor Davis issued a second executive order authorizing energy utilities to offer discounts to customers who conserve energy during the summer months, to ward off the threat of additional power outages such as those the state has experienced in recent weeks.
Not all members of Congress feel that temporary energy shortages should preclude new limits on power plant pollution. On Thursday, a coalition of Senate and House members led by two Republicans - Senator James Jeffords of Vermont and New York Representative Sherwood Boehlert - plan to introduce legislation that would require power plants to cut their carbon dioxide emissions back to 1990 levels.
The bill would also require cuts in emissions of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and mercury. Though the bill has bipartisan backing, it is expected to meet opposition from most Congressional Republicans and President Bush.
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