Sun Sets on President Clinton's Environmental Legacy
By Cat Lazaroff
WASHINGTON, DC, January 19, 2001 (ENS) - President Bill Clinton did not complete all the environmental initiatives he had planned - or all that environmentalists would have liked. Yet Clinton's administration is likely to be remembered as one of most supportive of the environment in the nation's history.
President Clinton made his final address to the nation Thursday night, thanking the public for their support of his two term presidency.
"Incomes are rising across the board," Clinton noted. "Our air and water are cleaner. Our food and drinking water are safer. And more of our precious land has been preserved in the continental United States than at any time in a hundred years."
Clinton offered some advice to the incoming administration of George W. Bush, emphasizing the need to continue paying down the federal debt while choosing "wisely" to invest in the future and meet "big challenges."
Clinton warned that the new global economy requires the United States to take a leadership role in combating "the degradation of the global environment," as well as the spread of "deadly weapons and disease."
"In our times, America cannot, and must not, disentangle itself from the world," Clinton cautioned. "If we want the world to embody our shared values, then we must assume a shared responsibility."
"As we become ever more diverse, we must work harder to unite around our common values and our common humanity," Clinton said. "We must work harder to overcome our differences, in our hearts and in our laws. We must treat all our people with fairness and dignity, regardless of their race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, and regardless of when they arrived in our country."
CLINTON'S RECORD REFLECTS IMPORTANCE OF ENVIRONMENT
During his eight years in office, Clinton initiated or supported dozens of major environmental initiatives, and fought repeatedly against attempts to undermine environmental protections.
He regularly vetoed budget bills saddled by anti-environmental riders aimed at avoiding public scrutiny. Yet he took his own back door approach to environmental protections, using executive orders to create 17 new national monuments, and expand four more, without Congressional approval. These monuments preserve more than 4.6 million acres in the lower 48 states, more than any other administration has set aside.
But the Interior Department said this week that it has maintained a robust energy production program on public lands throughout the Clinton administration. The Department's oil, gas and coal program, administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior through the Bureau of Land Management and the Minerals Management Service, has continued energy development on federal lands at a pace that matches, or exceeds, production levels during the Ronald Reagan years, and during the previous George Bush administration, the agency said.
"The facts tell a clear story: the President's actions in protecting special landscapes will not adversely affect our nation's ability to produce energy on those federal lands that are appropriate for oil, gas or coal development," said outgoing Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. "We are producing more energy from our federal lands than ever before, but we are doing so in a prudent manner."
The amount of Bureau of Land Management land that the President has placed in protected status amounts to less than two percent of the BLM lands that are potentially available for energy development, Babbitt noted.
Just this week, Clinton opted against creating a national monument in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), to the dismay of many environmentalists. President elect Bush plans to explore options for opening part of the refuge to oil drilling, and environmentalists had hoped that Clinton would defuse that threat by designating the Arctic National Monument.
Clinton chose to focus largely on developing alternative energy sources, rather than new sources of fossil fuels. His administration launched more than 50 major initiatives to improve energy efficiency and develop clean, renewable energy sources. Over the past three years, the President secured more than $3 billion - a 50 percent increase in annual funding - to research and develop clean energy technologies.
ENVIRONMENT, ECONOMY BOTH SUPPORTED
Though the nation's booming economy has begun to falter in recent weeks, the Clinton administration enjoyed a period of remarkable economic prosperity. Throughout his tenure, Clinton and his administration argued that a strong economy and a clean environment are not mutually exclusive goals.
When Clinton took office in 1993, lethargic federal clean up efforts had left 88 percent of the worst 1,200 toxic waste sites and their communities polluted after 12 years of federal efforts, according to White House figures. Nearly 40,000 urban industrial sites sat abandoned with no federal strategy to redevelop them.
Sixty-two million people lived in areas with drinking water below federal standards, and nearly 157 million people - 62 percent of the country - breathed air that failed to meet federal standards.
The number of Americans living in communities meeting clean air standards has increased by 44 million since 1992.
Under Clinton, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) adopted the toughest standards ever on soot and smog, ordered major reductions in tailpipe emissions from cars, light trucks and sport utility vehicles, and mandated reducing the level of sulfur in gasoline by 90 percent.
If these measures are fully enacted - a shaky proposition given the environmental record of the incoming administration - these measures will cut smog causing pollution from new vehicles by 77 to 95 percent.
In recent weeks, the Administration targeted emissions from utilities and factories that darken the skies over national parks and wilderness areas, and announced a strategy to reduce harmful emissions of smog causing nitrogen oxides and particulate matter from heavy duty trucks and diesel fuels by more than 90 percent.
"Cleaning up big, dirty diesel trucks is critical to meet our nation's air quality goals and to protect the public health," said John Coruthers, Jr., president of the American Lung Association.
New initiatives will help clean up brownfields - lightly polluted abandoned industrial sites in urban areas - allowing them to be redeveloped, a policy that also helps reduce suburban sprawl.
"This is what urban revitalization is all about," noted Mickey Herbert, the majority owner of the Bridgeport Bluefish Baseball team in Connecticut. The Bluefish play in the new Harbor Yard sports complex, built on the site of a former brownfield. "This very site, which used to be the scourge of Fairfield County, is now the region's most exciting new entertainment venue."
The Clinton administration took a strong stance against environmental crimes, aggressively prosecuting those who violated the nation's environmental laws. In 1999, the EPA assessed a total of $228.3 million in civil and criminal penalties, the most ever assessed and $87 million more than in 1992.
The EPA referred 241 criminal cases to the Justice Department in 1999 - more than twice the number referred in 1992. More than 322 defendants were charged in 1999, and 2,500 total months of sentences were handed down, more than doubling enforcement activity in each category over 1992 levels.
CLINTON MAKES CLIMATE CHANGE A CENTRAL ISSUE
The Clinton administration launched the Climate Change Technology Initiative to spur the development of clean energy technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that lead to global warming while saving money and creating jobs. Over the past eight years, the Clinton administration secured more than $13 billion for scientific research into the causes and possible solutions for global warming.
"The Clinton Administration deserves credit for seeing energy efficiency for what it is - an energy source that is essential for the economic health of our nation," said David Nemtzow, president of the Alliance to Save Energy. "The Climate Change Technology Initiative in particular is spurring new clean energy technologies that are paying off like a gusher for the American people. The important choices on energy and climate must be made with a clear eye on the contribution to the environment, the economy, national security, and international competitiveness delivered in the past and promised for the future by energy-efficiency."
These initiatives, when they are fully in place, will significantly reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. But Clinton failed to persuade the Senate to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty aimed at combating climate change.
Under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, 39 industrialized nations are committed to cut their greenhouse gas emissions to an average of 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by the period 2008-2012. But the Protocol will not take effect until it is ratified by 55 percent of the nations emitting at least 55 percent of the six greenhouse gases.
The U.S. failed to ratify the treaty during Clinton's tenure, and is even less likely to do so while George W. Bush is in office. Bush has repeatedly said that he opposes the mechanisms of the Kyoto Protocol.
CLINTON SET NEW STANDARD FOR LAND PRESERVATION
When Clinton took office, more than half the historic wetlands in the continental U.S. had been lost to development, or drained for agriculture. The previous to administrations of Reagan and Bush had created no new national monuments, and proposed mining and oil drilling operations threatened natural areas ranging from the California and Florida coasts to Yellowstone National Park.
The Clinton-Gore administration initiated a program to reverse the loss of wetlands, setting a goal of a net increase of 100,000 acres of wetlands a year by 2005.
In 1996, pressure from the White House helped halt the proposed Crown Butte Resources gold mine, which would have been located about three miles east of the northeast corner of Yellowstone National Park. Toxic runoff from the mine, or its planned 106 acre tailings pond, could have proved as devastating to the park as the recent cyanide spill from a Romanian gold mine, which poisoned hundreds of kilometers of rivers in Romania, Hungary and Serbia almost one year ago.
Clinton worked with Congress to provide dedicated and protected funding for conservation and preservation programs, including his Lands Legacy initiative. The agreement will nearly double U.S. investment in these programs, making it one of the largest investments in protecting open space in the nation's history.
Clinton and Vice President Gore protected coastal areas by extending an existing moratorium on new oil leasing off most of the U.S. coast through 2012, and permanently barred new leasing in national marine sanctuaries.
A MIXED LEGACY, BUT CLEARLY PRO-ENVIRONMENT
Among Clinton's most controversial moves was the opening of permanent normal trade relations with China in May 2000. Opponents cited China's dismal record on environmental issues, and warned that ending the practice of annually reviewing China's record before approving trade removes one of America's only means of influencing China's policies.
But these issues, while attracting vocal and highly visible protests, are less likely to be remembered as Clinton's legacy then are the tangible reminders of Clinton's pro-environment choices: the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument; acres of roadless, old growth forest; groves of windmills producing pollution free electricity.
Though Clinton will not go down in history as the nation's best president - just today, he publicly admitted to lying under oath to an independent prosecutor - environmentalists would certainly not call him the worst. Clinton's environmental record beats that of his immediate predecessors and seems likely to surpass that of his successor.
And the environment is likely to play a major role in how the next president is perceived. Two candidates ran for president last year with pro-environmental agendas - Vice President Al Gore and consumer advocate Ralph Nader. Gore captured, by a very narrow margin, the popular vote, but the Democratic candidate was defeated in the electoral college.
That means that a solid majority of the country chose to vote for candidates with strong environmental records - a fact that George W. Bush may ignore only at his political peril.