State of the Union Maps Bush Energy Path

WASHINGTON, DC, February 3, 2005 (ENS) - The State of the Union address given by President George W. Bush last night was long on plans to change the Social Security system and short on natural resources protection. The President did mention two environmental issues - he urged Congress to pass his energy bill, first introduced nearly four years ago, and he urged a change in the law to eliminate "frivolous asbestos claims."

"To keep our economy growing, we also need reliable supplies of affordable, environmentally responsible energy," the President said.

Bush characterized his energy bill as "a comprehensive energy strategy that encourages conservation, alternative sources, a modernized electricity grid, and more production here at home - including safe, clean nuclear energy."

"My Clear Skies legislation will cut power plant pollution and improve the health of our citizens," the President said.

President George W. Bush pauses for applause during his State of the Union address. Behind him are Vice President Dick Cheney (left) and Speaker of the House of Representatives Denis Hastert. (Photo courtesy The White House)
He promised a budget with "strong funding" for hydrogen-fueled cars, clean coal, and ethanol.

"Four years of debate is enough: I urge Congress to pass legislation that makes America more secure and less dependent on foreign energy," said the President.

The reaction to the President's statement was predictable - industry likes it, conservation groups do not.

The National Petrochemical & Refiners Association (NPRA) President Bob Slaughter said his organization "welcomes and supports President Bush's call for swift passage of comprehensive energy legislation in this Congress." NPRA is a national trade association whose members include the owners and operators of virtually all U.S. refining capacity as well as major U.S. petrochemical manufacturers.

The Bush energy bill has been defeated in each of the two sessions of Congress held during the President's first term. Two of the biggest stumbling blocks to the bill's passage have been sizeable subsidies to the petroleum industry, and the exemption from liability for producers of fuel additives like MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether) which has contaminated water supplies across the country.

Slaughter said, "As part of any comprehensive bill, NPRA continues to support limited liability protection for producers of fuel additives like MTBE that were mandated by federal law and regulation."

Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope had a different take on the President's energy policy statements.

"While President Bush's State of the Union address indicated that he understands Americans want cleaner energy, his speech misrepresented the true thrust of his polluting energy initiatives. President Bush highlighted small parts of his energy plan while glossing over the unpopular centerpiece of his efforts - drilling for oil in special places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge," Pope said.

"His ludicrous assertion that nuclear power is 'safe and clean' completely ignored the fact that there is still no way to safely transport and store nuclear waste," Pope said.

Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Washington-based Nuclear Information & Resource Service, said today, "Where Bush sees 'safe, clean nuclear power,' we see construction of new pre-deployed weapons of mass destruction to be used against us. Every community near a reactor would be at risk."

"Where Bush sees 'safe, clean nuclear power,' we see an unsolved legacy of lethal radioactive waste."

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Above-ground, dry-cask storage containers for temporary isolation of spent nuclear fuel. Current storage sites for nuclear waste are located in a mixture of urban, suburban, and rural environments in 39 states; most are located near large bodies of water. (Photo courtesy DOE Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management)
This waste will continue to pile up at reactor sites, even if the proposed Yucca Mountain waste site - which does not and cannot meet federal regulations - were to open," Mariotte warned. "Building new reactors would exacerbate the problem, and force the U.S. to find yet another national dumpsite."

"Bush should have taken the courageous lead of International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohammed ElBaradei, who has called for a five-year moratorium on construction of new uranium enrichment facilities to help prevent nuclear proliferation. Instead, the administration supports construction of such plants in New Mexico and Ohio," Mariotte said.

President Bush has a new Secretary of Energy who will translate his energy policies into actions - Dr. Samuel Bodman, a chemical engineer and former Deputy Secretary of the Treasury (2003-present) and former Deputy Secretary of Commerce (2001-2003).

Sworn in on Tuesday, Bodman listed his, and the administration's priorities, "... preserving Americaís pre-eminence in the physical sciences, ensuring the responsible stewardship of our nationís nuclear weapons stockpile, advancing our international nuclear nonproliferation efforts, and ensuring reliable, secure, affordable and environmentally responsible supplies of energy for our growing economy.Ē

The "environmentally responsible" approach to energy supplies, a phrase used by both Bush and Bodman, means adopting the administration's "Clear Skies" legislation to Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council (ERCC).

The "Clear Skies" legislation would replace provisions of the existing Clean Air Act that require best new technology be used to limit emissions whenever a new source of power is constructed with a cap and trade system for pollutants.

ERCC members are electric utilities, labor unions, public power companies and businesses that opposes the Clean Air Act's New Source Review (NSR) rules. They say new source review "is threatening the reliability of our national electrical system and unnecessarily increasing the cost of power to American consumers and businesses, while providing no additional protection to the environment."

Segal called Clear Skies legislation "more rationale and effective" than the Clean Air Act. He says it would "preserve a useful role for coal, a reliable and secure domestic energy source with hundreds of years of supply within our borders."

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American Electric Power's Zimmer Coal Plant in Moscow, Ohio (Photo courtesy R&S)
"Adopting Clear Skies and an energy bill represents a potent policy combination, together ensuring diversity in our energy supply and enhanced environmental protection. The President's leadership is essential to advance both efforts," said Segal.

The Sierra Club's Pope disagrees. "President Bush also failed to mention that strong enforcement of the existing Clean Air Act would do more to cut power plant pollution than his proposed legislation, which favors big energy companies," he said today.

Pope favors "modern, 21st century solutions that will produce real increases in efficiency, fuel economy and reliance on renewable energy sources like wind and solar power." He sees nuclear power as "dangerous," and fossil fuels such as coal and oil as "dirty" and their extraction as a threat to America's public lands.

Clear the Air Director Angela Ledford represents grassroots and national environmental groups in a national public education campaign to improve air quality by reducing emissions from coal-burning power plants. She views the "Clear Skies" legislation as a " polluter wish list" this is a threat to public health.

"The National Academy of Sciences has said that enforcement of current law could stop more pollution from old, dirty power plants than the Bush plan would," said Ledford. "These dangerous changes to the law not only threaten continued progress on smog and acid rain, but it also means that our children could be exposed to more lead, more arsenic, and more mercury."

The National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) today commended the President for his support of ethanol, a fuel that is made from crops, mainly corn. NCGA President Leon Corzine said his members were encouraged by the Presidentís remarks, but "corn growers wonít be satisfied until Congress approves a comprehensive energy bill containing a Renewable Fuels Standard for ethanol."

Energy efficiency is the answer to America's energy needs, according to Alliance to Save Energy President Kateri Callahan, whose group represents business, government, environmental, and consumer interests.

Commenting on the State of the Union address, Callahan said, "President Bush and the Congress, together, must do more than rehash the same old, tired energy bill that has failed in not one, but two Congresses."

"Natural gas prices have gone up by 16 percent since the beginning of the winter and home heating oil by 29 percent in the past year, and it looks like $2 a gallon gasoline is here to stay. We need leadership from the White House to harness the power of energy efficiency - the quickest, cleanest, cheapest way to extend our nation's energy supplies - and to help bring supply and demand back into balance," Callahan said.

Asbestos Litigation

In his State of the Union speech, President Bush asked Congress to revise the law to eliminate "frivolous asbestos claims."

"Justice is distorted, and our economy is held back by irresponsible class-actions and frivolous asbestos claims - and I urge Congress to pass legal reforms this year," the President said.

But more people die of asbestos related illnesses than from skin cancer, according to a six month investigation of health problems related to asbestos in the United States, completed in March 2004, by the Environment Working Group (EWG), a research and advocacy organization.

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Asbestos hazard warning sign (Photo credit unknown)
"Ten thousand Americans die each year - a rate approaching 30 deaths per day - from diseases caused by asbestos, according to a detailed analysis of government mortality records and epidemiological studies," said the EWG report, partially funded by trial lawyers.

Diseases linked to asbestos exposure overwhelmingly affect older men.

"The highly politicized controversy in Washington over asbestos litigation has overshadowed a quiet and directly related crisis in public health: an epidemic of asbestos-caused diseases in the United States that claims the life of one out of every 125 American men who die over the age of 50," EWG said.

Asbestos was used in American industry during the 20th century, and has not been entirely banned. It was used for fireproofing, insulation, automobile parts and construction materials. Asbestos consists of tiny silicate mineral fibers that, when inhaled, cause respiratory illnesses such as mesothelioma, an aggressive form of cancer.

"It's all about eliminating the trial lawyers, that's the goal," said Richard Wiles, senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group, told the "Washington Post" in January.

About 600,000 asbestos claims are pending, according to the Rand Institute for Civil Justice. Businesses have paid out about $70 billion for asbestos claims over the past 30 years, while 70 corporations have filed for bankruptcy protection because of the liability.

Advocates of asbestos tort reform argue that excessive litigation by individuals injured by asbestos is bankrupting scores of major corporations and may even bankrupt the U.S. economy. But an EWG review of public statements by corporations with asbestos liability shows otherwise.

"Bankrupt" companies put a different face on this liability for Wall Street investors, said EWG, "calling their asbestos bankruptcies "good news" (Halliburton), with "little impact on day-to-day operations" (Babcock and Wilcox)."

The Environmental Working Group explains that "asbestos bankruptcies are not liquidations, but are reorganizations that shield all company assets and subsidiaries from future asbestos claims as they attempt to provide fair compensation for individuals and families harmed by decades of highly profitable, but largely uncontrolled, asbestos manufacturing and use."

This morning President Bush lightened a prayer breakfast with reference to last night's State of the Union address. "You know, last night was a prayerful occasion," the President said. "I noticed a lot of members were praying that I would keep my speech short."

The 2005 State of the Union address was short, but it pointed to the path the President will travel on natural resource matters in the coming year.