Editorial News

 

The environment cannot run on auto pilot

 

Voice From UCSB: Dennis J. Aigner

 

10/3/04

 

With regard to Daniel Jorjani's Aug. 15 and Lynn Scarlett's Sept. 5 responses to my commentary ("War on the Environment," Aug. 1, 2004), it's not that I am unaware of high-profile Bush policies such as Clear Skies, Healthy Forests, the National Energy Plan, or the Department of Interior's commendable efforts in "cooperative conservation."

 

And it's not that all existing environmental legislation is perfect and shouldn't be modified, or that all the environmental legislation in 2003 -- which was the subject of my analysis of congressional voting records -- is beyond criticism.

 

But there is a clear pattern here that must be highlighted, and that was my goal. The Bush administration has worked to overturn or weaken more than 200 public health and environmental laws so far.

 

It has done a few pro-environment things as well. (See the Natural Resource Defense Council's Web site (www.nrdc.org) for a comprehensive review of the Bush administration's environmental record.)

 

The primary rationales for its actions are (1) that many of the environmental laws in this country are overly strict and don't make sense from a cost-benefit or risk analysis point of view; (2) that environmental goals can be accomplished through voluntary approaches; and (3) that we should do everything we can to expand domestic oil and gas supplies while protecting international supplies.

 

On the first two of these, no doubt there are some environmental laws and regulations that have either outlived their usefulness or are overly burdensome. As long as they are analyzed properly and there is an open process by which we can decide if and when to pull back on specific regulations or convert them to voluntary initiatives, that's fine.

 

But is that what's actually happening?

 

On the other hand, some laws or regulations should be tightened -- as was the case with the new rules for reducing pollution from heavy-duty diesel engines used in construction, agricultural and industrial equipment that were recently enacted (to the credit of the administration), or new ones should be created.

 

We are not yet in a position to let things run on auto pilot as far as the environment goes.

 

On the third, the development of more domestic oil and gas supplies as our primary answer to U.S. dependence on foreign oil comes with potentially huge environmental downsides.

 

We know the "end of oil" is going to be upon us soon. Why aren't we concentrating on developing a long-term strategy for coping with that reality instead of pushing for short-term "gains" with significant environmental and national security consequences? (An excellent book on this subject is the recently published "Winning the Oil Endgame" by Amory Lovins and others at the Rocky Mountain Institute.)

Minimizing oil reliance entails new model

 

In my article, I was over the top in suggesting that President Bush is hell-bent on taking us back to the days when polluters were unaccountable, all for the sake of economic progress; however, I remain critical of his environmental record.

 

I also need to be clear that I speak for myself and not for the Bren School faculty, staff, students or extended Bren community.

 

Our mission at the Bren School is to solve environmental problems through an integrated, multidisciplinary approach. We acknowledge that it is not easy to make the sorts of trade-offs required in balancing the short- and long-term consequences of maintaining a strong economy while preserving the environment. We pride ourselves on training outstanding professionals who can do the job.

 

It also won't be easy to move quickly toward a radically different oil future because the steps required are fundamentally disruptive to our current business models. It will require a different, more comprehensive form of leadership from Washington, the oil companies, the major industrial sectors that depend on oil, and the U.S. automakers.

 

An encouraging hint of what is possible from the business sector can now be seen in the actions of some of the leading petroleum companies and other major industrial players in their efforts to address global warming, a situation of great significance to the planet whose primary cause is the burning of fossil fuels.

 

The author is dean of the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management

at UCSB.