© St. Petersburg Times, published October 15, 2000
Presidential campaigns used to frame the environment -- like abortion, taxes and civil rights -- as a polarizing domestic issue. But with new political and trade alliances across the globe, environmental policy has matured as government leaders recognize its broad implications for growth, public health and national security. Though George W. Bush and Al Gore disagree on how to pursue their environmental goals, they offer, in many ways, similar agendas. Both have moved toward the middle as green politics arrives in the mainstream.
Bush and Gore both promise to improve the quality of air and drinking water, protect natural resources and limit the damage caused by population growth and sprawl. The difference is how. Bush would give incentives to property owners and business rather than rely on government mandates. He also would shift regulatory control to cities and the states. Gore, too, supports voluntary collaboration with the private sector, but he is more willing to enforce uniform environmental standards and to preserve strong federal oversight.
Air and water
The contrast between Bush and Gore is sharpest when considering their records for improving air and water quality.
Under Bush as governor, Texas reports lower levels of smog and water pollution. The state required older electric utilities to curb emissions of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide and crafted a plan whereby industrial plants would voluntary reduce air pollution. Still, by almost every measure, air and water pollution in Texas are serious problems, exacerbated by Bush's ambivalence toward making the environment a priority. Last year, Houston became America's most smog-filled city (in part because pollution in Los Angeles dropped so dramatically). It ranks first nationally in toxic releases by heavy polluters.
In fairness, Bush inherited many of Texas' problems. The state is home to much of the nation's oil, gas and chemical industry, the governor in Texas is constitutionally weak compared to other chief executives, and much of the electorate shares Bush's disdain for green agendas and government regulation. Still, Gore, as a congressman, senator and vice president, worked to toughen clean air and water standards, and his commitment to enforcing industry compliance is genuine and more firmly established than Bush's.
Aside from consistently supporting clean air, clean water and reductions in toxic substances, Gore has proposed added protections for distressed neighborhoods and has long backed the "Right to Know" law that informs residents of toxic releases in their neighborhoods. Gore supports mandatory protections under the Clean Air Act and has prodded automakers to build more fuel-efficient cars. Bush opposes mandatory emissions cuts and effectively cut auto and industrial inspections in Texas. And though Bush criticizes the Environmental Protection Agency as proof that federal environmental policy "fails to reward innovation or results," it was pressure by the EPA, in the form of threatened cuts in federal highway funds, that prompted Texas to move against heavy-polluting power plants.
Bush and Gore have unleashed a bidding war on historic new spending for national parks. Bush promised to spend $4.9-billion over five years to pay for a backlog of park maintenance. While Texas ranks near the bottom in spending for state parks, Bush has generally supported attempts by the states to garner more federal money. Bush has proposed grants and tax credits worth millions of dollars for private landowners who practice conservation or who sell their land for environmental purposes. The move would represent the "market-based" approach that Bush favors for public lands management.
Gore supports "balanced" commercial use of public lands. But he would impose far more limits than Bush on drilling and mining. Gore mocked Bush's proposal to allow oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which the vice president opposes. Gore also would extend the moratorium on oil drilling off the coasts of Florida and California and ban new drilling under existing leases. Bush would extend the moratorium against new leases but consider drilling under existing leases on a case-by-case basis.
Bush's critics deride his call for a "new philosophy of public stewardship" as nothing more than a Trojan horse to promote drilling, development on environmentally sensitive land and "takings" laws for property owners. But while Bush and his running mate, former congressman Dick Cheney, have personal and political ties to the oil industry, Bush's platform also reflects the governor's appreciation for states' rights and Texans' cultural regard for independence. He has criticized the EPA for using a big stick.
Gore is comfortable using federal power to guide the states, which can induce Congress to offset the costs for environmental cleanup. Gore was a leader in Washington for the $8-billion Florida Everglades restoration plan; the costs are to be split between the federal government and the state. Some activists fault the plan for providing too many incentives to growers and developers. Gore also angered some environmentalists by leaving open the door to reopen Homestead Air Force Base as a commercial airport. Gore has relaxed his tree-hugging image when it suited his ambition. Though endorsed by the League of Conservation Voters, Gore compiled a lower score (64 percent) during his congressional career than the lifetime rating (95 percent) of his running mate, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman.
The riots in December at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle were a violent reminder of how the environment figures in the new world political and economic order. Bush and Gore acknowledge that. But the two rarely venture beyond the debate over greenhouse gases, leaving aside questions about sprawl, population growth, technology and the environmental implications of free trade.
Bush and Gore agree on several ways to manage growth on eco-friendly terms. Both promise to expand the "brownfield" tax credit, which lures businesses back to the urban core, where roads and utilities already exist, thereby limiting sprawl. Bush and Gore also agree on incorporating environmental policies within negotiations on foreign trade, though Gore goes further, supporting the need for enforceable environmental pacts within international trade agreements.
Gore helped to salvage the 1997 Kyoto global-warming pact, which seeks to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Environmentalists fault the Clinton-Gore administration for not making Kyoto a priority, but Bush opposes the pact altogether, calling it unfair and overly expensive for American business. Despite their disagreement over Kyoto, Gore and Bush support more research into global warming, private efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions and the development of new technologies to counter climate change.
Gore draws an important distinction by criticizing Bush for his environmental record. Strong environmental standards, overseen and enforced by the federal government, have undeniably protected natural resources, spared the landscape and made cities more safe and livable -- in Texas, and every other state. And Gore, unlike Bush, is specific in his support for continuing a strong, federal role. But the vice president is not above playing politics or embracing a market-oriented approach to balance his ecological and political goals. Long a proponent of energy taxes as a tool to curb consumption, and thus pollution, Gore nonetheless reversed himself last month in calling for lower fuel prices and urging President Clinton to release oil from the nation's strategic reserve. The next president is likely to face some complex choices in environmental policy bearing on job creation, new technology and integration of the world economy. Based on his record, Gore is more trustworthy when it comes to protecting the environment.
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