Is Bush Using a Phony 'Energy Crisis' for Cover on the Environment?

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Bush makes a statement on the shores of Lake Tahoe at Sand Harbor State Park

When George W. Bush first shattered the illusions — perhaps delusions is the better word — of environmentalists everywhere last week by reversing his stance on carbon dioxide emissions, he had a handy excuse: The economy — specifically the energy crisis — made me do it.

"Including caps on carbon dioxide emissions as part of a multiple emissions strategy would lead to an even more dramatic shift from coal to natural gas for electric power generation and significantly higher electricity prices," Bush wrote in his March 13 letter to Chuck Hagel informing Congress of his change in policy. A few days later, Christie Whitman (whose own wishful thinking had probably gotten Bush into the mess in the first place) finally climbed on board, telling the National Press Club the country was "in the midst of a national energy crisis — this is a long way from being over."

And you aint' seen nothin' yet

Bush still got his three days of bashing in the press from editorial writers and environmental groups for marching directly into the arms of Big Coal, but the heat obviously wasn't enough to drive the White House back toward the middle of the environmental road. Because this week it seemed determined to stretch that economic cover just as far as it will go — and it ain't just drilling in Alaska.

Tuesday, the administration announced it was withdrawing tough new limits (set by an outgoing President Clinton) on the amount of arsenic allowable in drinking water, pending further review. Wednesday, the administration said it would seek to undo regulations forcing more hard-rock miners in the West to post cleanup bonds. And Thursday, Vice President Dick Cheney told "Hardball" that if it's emissions environmentalists are worried about, his energy-policy task force may well recommend that more nuclear power be part of the solution.

The solution: More is more

"We do not support the approach of the Kyoto treaty," Cheney said. "If you're really serious about greenhouse gases, one of the solutions to that problem is to go back, and let's take another another look at nuclear power, use that to generate electricity without having any adverse consequences."

Except, of course, the radioactive waste.

For the Bush-Cheney crowd, weaned on Big Oil and elected with Enron dollars, the worst "adverse consequences" are the economic kind, in which Big Business suffers at the hands of tree-huggers. For Republicans, the energy crisis — a term that Democrats have given up objecting to — demands more supply, more fuel for the U.S. economic engine. More drilling, more production, more oil, more coal. The only thing it demands less of is "onerous regulation" and environmental extremism.

The public is, ah, well, hard to read

To the environmentalists, of course, it's Bush's energy Rasputins who are the extremists — the sputtering economy and the California crisis are just the excuses. After the CO2 turnabout, Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat on the House Resources Committee, called Bush on the carpet.

"It is insulting to the American people that President Bush is using the electricity crisis in California as an excuse to allow old, inefficient power plants to continue polluting our air," Miller said in a statement. "It is a strong indication that the Bush administration is kowtowing to the oil and coal industry and is not listening to science or public opinion."

Maybe not science. But public opinion, when it comes to environmentalism, is a notoriously lazy watchdog. Polls on the Alaska drilling issue were inconclusive. (The modification of "oil drilling" with the words "environmentally responsible" tended to take the teeth right out of the opposition, even though the term is as murky as the air over Los Angeles.)

And the public is spoiled to boot

The problem is that while everybody likes the idea of a clean Earth, Americans aren't much for self-sacrifice. We drive SUVs and eschew public transportation, but can't bear high prices at the pump — and the "gas consumption tax" is political poison, deadlier than any arsenic. We own multiple TVs, surf the Internet, and run the air-conditioning while we're at work so the house is cool when we get home, but even in California, the most environmentally progressive state we've got, the mere mention of higher electricity bills as a demand-reducing measure sends shivers down Gray Davis's spine.

Democrats are trying — Tom Daschle, introducing a rival energy proposal, accused Bush on Thursday of trying to "drill our way out of this problem... we cannot use our coming energy challenges as justification for an all-out assault on the environment." But they're likely to find what environmentalists have always found: Americans love to dream about a cleaner world, but when we find out what it'll cost, we'll usually take a good excuse instead.

Bush evidently figures the energy crisis — or the economic slowdown, take your pick — will do nicely. And it just may.