- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 26, 2003

In another week, legislators will be headed home for the August recess. While they’ve accomplished quite a bit, including passage of a tax cut and Medicare reform, they’re far from finished, particularly in regard to the administration’s environmental initiatives.

In his State of the Union address, President Bush called for passage of a comprehensive energy bill, his Clear Skies legislation, the Healthy Forests Initiative and additional funding for hydrogen fuel research. So far, the congressional record is mixed, which is by in large bad for the sort of environmental stewardship the administration has advocated.

In April, the House passed a comprehensive energy bill by a vote of 247-175. It rightly contained both a measure opening a small portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy exploration and funding for the president’s Hydrogen Fuel Initiative. Senators have been debating their version of the bill since May. Although it contains no provision for ANWR drilling, it does contain funding for hydrogen fuel research and needed stimuli for the nuclear power industry. Senate Majority Leader Bill First has called for a final vote on the bill before the start of the recess. If and when that happens, there will still be many major points of contention in conference, since the two bills differ significantly in everything from how to overhaul wholesale electricity markets to renewable energy standards. Mr. Frist has wisely postponed action on air quality standards until the Environment and Public Works Committee finishes work on the Clear Skies Initiative.

Of the administration’s environmental initiatives, Clear Skies seems to have the least likely prospects for passage this year. That is unfortunate in some respects, since the initiative’s innovative cap-and-trade program for reductions in sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide deserve serious congressional consideration. However, many conservatives are uneasy with the bill’s tightened restrictions on mercury emissions (next week, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is expected to hear testimony on the science of such emissions), fearing that the cost of such reductions may be far greater than the benefits accrued. On the other side of the aisle, liberal Democrats and some moderate Republicans have the vapors over the administration’s proper refusal to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant. While Sen. James Jeffords, an independent from Vermont, and Sen. Thomas Carper, Delaware Democrat, have offered bills which would do that, they have scant chance of passage in the Senate, much less in the House. Earlier this month, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin said that Clear Skies did not represent the “holy grail” of clean-air law.

Prospects seem rather better for the Healthy Forests Initiative. It passed the House by a vote of 256 to 170 in May and received affirmation by members of the Senate Agriculture Committee last Thursday. However, it is not certain if Republicans have the votes to pass the measure on the floor. Shortly after the bill’s passage, Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vermont Democrat, issued a statement claiming that it would “gut environmental laws and judicial review.” He and his Democratic colleagues are continuing to object to the bill’s tree-thinning measures, even though last year, Sen. Tom Daschle attempted to put similar provisions into practice in South Dakota. Hopefully, there will be some unburned forest left when they return in September. Over 32,000 fires have already burned nearly 1.5 million acres nationwide, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Environmental stewardship requires that several balances be kept — between federal legislation and local innovation; environmental protection and industrial profit-taking; and between pragmatism and idealism. In many respects, the administration’s proposals meet those mid-points well, while providing the additional fuel (actual and financial) necessary for continued environmental innovation and protection. Congress would do well to finish its work on Mr. Bush’s environmental initiatives before the term expires.

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