Environmental activists have never made a secret of their preference for Democrats in the Oval Office. During the Reagan and first Bush administrations, they regularly sounded alarm bells over Republican policies on environmental issues. Those attacks pale when compared to the hysteria among green pressure groups over the current Bush administration. According to these groups, preventing the president’s reelection is the only thing that can save us from environmental disaster. That partisan politics affects environmental policy is nothing new; most major U.S. environmental laws came out of the Nixon administration’s efforts to one-up Democratic Senator Edmund Muskie. Now, however, some green groups are so intent on defeating President Bush that they’ve become de facto partisan attack dogs, challenging every aspect of the president’s record, even when such attacks are misleading or unsupported by the facts. Such increasing partisanship is polluting the debate over environmental protection and preventing reforms needed to improve environmental quality.
One effort to tar the president as Environmental Enemy No. 1 is “BushGreenwatch.” According to its website, “BushGreenwatch provides accurate and timely information on the Bush Administration’s assault on our environment and public health.”
BushGreenwatch is “a project of Environmental Media Services,” an environmental media outfit launched by a former Gore campaign staffer with the help of infamous leftist PR shop Fenton Communications, and operates “with support from MoveOn.org.” As one might expect, the “accurate and timely information” distributed by BushGreenwatch always has the same bottom line: President Bush is a disaster for the environment.
BushGreenwatch distributes daily e-mail alerts to journalists and environmental activists. So intent is BushGreenwatch on “track[ing] the Bush Administration’s environmental misdeeds,” it plays fast and loose with the facts. On April 30, for example, BushGreenwatch hyped a study purporting to show that record childhood asthma rates will climb even higher due to air pollution and other sources, and pinned the blame on the Bush administration. The press release upon which BushGreenwatch based its alert claimed that urban air pollution, in particular photochemical smog, “causes” asthma. Not so: Childhood asthma is at record levels, but air pollution almost certainly has nothing to do with it. As childhood asthma rates have climbed, outdoor air pollution levels have plummeted. Urban air pollution may cause added discomfort in children who have asthma, but it does not cause the disease. Yet BushGreenwatch did not let these facts get in the way of a good slam on the administration.
Though managed by Environmental Media Services, BushGreenwatch is anything but a balanced or objective source of environmental information for journalists. BushGreenwatch has repeatedly attacked the administration for its alleged abandonment of the National Parks, with scarcely any mention that the Bush administration inherited a multi-billion-dollar park-maintenance backlog and that park funding has consistently increased since President Bush took office. BushGreenwatch charges that the administration is anti-environment for failing to list more animals and plants under the Endangered Species Act, yet never reports on the ESA’s dismal record at protecting species. Indeed, since its enactment over 30 years ago, more listed species have gone extinct under the Act’s protection than have been recovered due to ESA regulations. Even though several species have been removed from the endangered list because they were originally listed in error, BushGreenwatch echoes environmentalist complaints that efforts to weed out “junk science” in species-listing determinations are tantamount to exterminating plants and animals.
Not surprisingly, BushGreenwatch also pays little attention to economics in its quest to root out the sins of the administration. On April 15, “Tax Day” — under the headline “Taxpayers paying for polluters’ clean-up” — BushGreenwatch charged that “the Bush administration is now charging the public — rather than polluters — for the clean-up of Superfund sites.” As an alternative, BushGreenwatch endorsed the call by several environmental groups to re-impose taxes on corporations and chemical feedstocks. These taxes expired several years ago and the Bush administration opposes their re-imposition. Although BushGreenwatch euphemistically called the proposed tax increase “restoring industry fees,” it remains a tax increase, and taxpayers would still pay for cleanup, as the taxes would be passed on to consumers.
BushGreenwatch’s releases on Superfund repeat the myth that these taxes represent the “polluter pays” principle, under which polluters pay for the costs of their detrimental activities. This may be a good idea, but it is hardly an accurate description of Superfund taxes. The taxes on corporations and chemical feedstocks imposed costs on companies without any regard for their relative culpability for polluting abandoned waste sites. In the end, these costs are borne by shareholders and consumers — the very same people BushGreenwatch pretends to protect.
Not only does BushGreenwatch get its facts wrong, it also frequently misrepresents how federal laws operate, and misrepresents Democrats’ records on the same issues. One alert, for example, assails the administration over a favorite green whipping boy, the General Mining Law of 1872. Attacking “sweetheart giveaways” of land, BushGreenwatch complained about the recent transfer of 155 acres “of federally owned, prime mountaintop real estate” in Colorado to a “multinational mining company” at a price of $5 per acre. The president was blamed for the sale even though it was mandated by statute. In fact, for over 120 years — through both Democratic and Republican administrations — the federal Mining Law has provided that those who discover valuable mineral deposits on federal land are entitled to receive ownership of those resources as a reward for the discovery. Indeed, some of the Mining Law’s most effective defenders have been Democrats like Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada and Minority Leader Thomas Daschle of South Dakota. The Bush administration may not stage the theatrical deed-signings protesting land transfers as the Clinton administration did, but the end result is the same: As the law mandates, those who comply with the Mining Law’s requirements are issued title to land where they have discovered valuable minerals.
Contrary to BushGreenwatch’s claim, there is also no “giveaway” of federal land. Environmentalists delight in comparing the value of mineral resources with the nominal price set by the statute, claiming that mining companies get minerals worth billions for a pittance. This neglects the substantial cost of mining. Miners today rarely pick up nuggets of gold from stream beds, as in the California Gold Rush. Mining today is a costly, complex business of extracting tiny amounts of valuable minerals from enormous quantities of low-grade ore. Finding, evaluating, and developing a mine eats up most of the value of the minerals recovered, leaving the mine owner without the bonanza claimed by the environmental literature.
At times BushGreenwatch gets downright sloppy in its anti-Bush zeal. For example, an e-mail alert distributed this spring lambasted Bush’s nominee for EPA deputy administrator for her allegedly anti-environmental record. There was only one problem. The person in question, Ann Klee, was nominated for a quite different position: EPA general counsel. The administration’s nominee for deputy administrator was Stephen Johnson — something one would expect environmental activists to know, seeing as, at the time, Johnson had already been on the job as acting deputy for nine months. The error was eventually corrected on the website, but no correction was ever sent to recipients of BushGreenwatch’s e-mail alerts.
There is plenty of room to criticize the Bush administration’s environmental record on its merits. Free-market groups have expressed vocal disappointment over the administration’s reluctance to champion property-rights solutions to environmental problems. Indeed, with a few exceptions, the Bush administration has made little effort to bring the last generation of environmental laws up to date. Yet most nonpartisan environmental analysts agree that reform of existing environmental laws and regulations is long overdue. This country needs an open and in-depth debate on the future direction of environmental policy, but this debate should be based on a sober assessment of facts and existing environmental programs — not fear-mongering or partisan attacks. Obscuring and misrepresenting the current administration’s environmental record may help defeat President Bush’s bid for reelection, but it will do little to promote the reforms or regulations needed to improve environmental quality.
— NRO contributing editor Jonathan H. Adler and Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) senior associate Andrew P. Morriss are professors at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law.