OpEd: Empty Promises

New York Times editorial critical of lack of protection for environment or energy development in State of Union address.

Published: 31-Jan-2003

Everyone expects a certain amount of hokum in a State of the Union address. But for artful misdirection it's hard to top the three paragraphs in which President Bush promised to protect the environment while promoting energy independence. Set aside for the moment the meagerness of his menu, as well as the plain fact that he has spent the last two years rolling back laws and regulations that have long guarded the nation's air, water and public lands. The real tipoff to his intentions lies in the three proposals themselves. Whatever their long-term promise, none would do much good in the short term and some would actually do harm.

Mr. Bush asserted, for example, that his Clear Skies Initiative, which is designed to update parts of the Clean Air Act, would achieve a 70 percent cut in power plant pollution by 2018. What he did not say was that most of these cuts will come in the program's later years. In the meantime, his proposal allows for more pollution than would occur under strict application of current law — parts of which Mr. Bush has already weakened and parts of which he intends to weaken. In addition, Clear Skies would do nothing to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, a big contributor to global warming.

Mr. Bush's second proposal was his plan to prevent a repetition of the fires that have devastated Western forests in the last two summers. He calls this his Healthy Forest Initiative (the Bush people are great at euphemisms). Again the objective is laudable, the prescription worrisome. Among other defects, the plan would ease rules providing for public review of Forest Service decisions, reinforcing fears that the administration's main objective is to give the timber industry a blank check to log the forests in the guise of protecting them.

Mr. Bush's last proposal — and the high point of his presentation — was a commitment to develop a hydrogen-powered car. He calls it the Freedom Car, the implication being that it will help free us from dependence on foreign oil. As indeed it might. President Clinton recognized the value of a hydrogen car and undertook a research program that Mr. Bush has rightly chosen to enlarge and accelerate. Unfortunately, however, the plan does nothing to encourage greater efficiency in the approximately 17 million or so passenger vehicles — about half of them gas-guzzling S.U.V.'s and minivans — that will come rolling off the assembly lines every year between now and 2020, which is about when Mr. Bush says we'll be able to buy our first hydrogen-powered car.

Indeed, Mr. Bush charges determinedly in the opposite direction. He has downsized the one government program aimed at developing marketable gas/electric hybrid cars, which even Detroit agrees is the way to way to go for the next decade. The fuel economy improvements he proposed a few weeks ago for S.U.V.'s are pathetically small. His Justice Department is supporting the auto makers in their lawsuit against California's innovative low-emission-vehicle program. Finally — and most perversely of all — his tax plan offers an even bigger break for small-business men who buy S.U.V.'s.

It is possible that Mr. Bush's forthcoming budget proposal will offer more cheerful news for the country's environmental and energy future. The State of the Union offered almost none.

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