- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 25, 2001

By almost any measure, this countrys environment is cleaner and safer than it was 30 years ago. There is less air and water pollution, less urban sprawl than expected and greater energy efficiency than ever. Only when measuring progress by political yardsticks is there a shortfall. So guess which category is getting all the attention of the media?

These days both print and broadcast outlets are filled with accounts of President Bush´s poor environmental record. Environmental activists denounce him as the friend of polluters in both news stories and in advertisements. Talk-show hosts pummel Cabinet officials who attempt to defend him. Interestingly, the environment itself is only a bit player, however, in such disputes. Here progress is measured by more conventional Beltway tools: public opinion surveys, political appointments and agenda, regulations issued and budgetary spending.

When Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry attacked Mr. Bush regarding energy development, he highlighted the president´s proposal to spend less on subsidies for so-called renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power. The fact that renewables provide for about 2 percent of U.S. electricity needs and aren´t competitive with the costs of more reliable energy sources coal and natural gas is irrelevant to him. Government spending is his measure of environmental progress.

Likewise many critics have lambasted Mr. Bush´s decision to review a regulation to reduce the amount of arsenic in drinking water. To re-assure Americans that Mr. Bush isn´t out to poison anyone, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Christine Todd Whitman has rushed to the media to say that whatever the results of the review, the current limit on arsenic to 50 parts per billion will become even more restrictive, perhaps as low as 10 parts per billion. Analysts at the American Enterprise Institute-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Review have found, using EPA´s own numbers, that this reduction would save perhaps 10 statistical (i.e. imaginary or hypothetical) lives at a cost of about $65 million per life. Wouldn´t it make more sense to spend such sums on real people with real health risks rather than on the imaginary kind? Regulating arsenic and other chemicals to produce zero exposure might make sense were there no costs to such idealism. But there are costs.

The Bush administration ought to consider bringing the environment back into this debate. The recent release of the Pacific Research Institute´s (PRI) index of leading environmental indicators makes it easy to do. A few of the findings: Ambient air pollution levels in the United States (for sulfur dioxides, nitrogen oxides, ozone, carbon monoxide, particulates and lead) are all down. The amount of lead pollution levels is down to zero, and sulfur dioxides and carbon monoxide are both down more than 60 percent.

Worried about urban sprawl? Federal data show that just 5.2 percent of the total land area of the United States is considered developed. Energy efficiency in the United States is another success story. According to the Department of Energy´s Energy Information Administration: "Energy consumption per dollar of has declined at an average annual rate of 1.7 percent during the last 25 years."

Says Steven Hayward of PRI, the environmental progress this country has made is "remarkable." That's a story the Bush administration shouldn´t hesitate to tell.

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