The Devil in the Details

by Carolyn Chase


hose of you heading for the voters booth can take little comfort in the political trade-offs on conservation issues that Congressional incumbents have delivered. On Wednesday afternoon, October 21, President Clinton signed the $520 billion, 4,000-page, 40-pound Omnibus Budget Appropriations Bill. Only since its passage has anyone outside the Conference Committee negotiations been even allowed to see the legislation. The bill was slapped together in closed-door "horse-trading" sessions immune to public scrutiny.

One of the main reasons for this legislative shambles is that for the past several months a small but zealous group of Republican leaders insisted on loading a host of anti-environmental amendments onto appropriations bills. This group's intransigence was largely centered on hostility to environmental safeguards. In case after case, they represented attempts by parochial interests to hack away at strands in the fabric of environmental protections supported by the majority of Americas of all political persuasions.

Many of the proposed anti-environmental provisions - or "riders" as they are called - were not included in the final version of the bill. The bill does include some gains for conservation, including some increased funding for endangered species, wildlife habitat acquisition, and Everglades restoration. Grassroots pressure doomed many of the worst proposals which were leaked out via negotiators at the table. But too many survived. Grass roots environmental networking groups have catalogued 31 anti-environmental riders that survived.

The midnight riders were widely recognized to stand no chance of passage if considered on their merits in an up-or-down vote - thus giving us no chance to see where our representatives really stand. How convenient. "The anti-environmental riders remaining in this bill are a stealth attack on the conservation safeguards Americans want and deserve," according to Mark Van Putten, National Wildlife Federation President.

In case you are inclined to believe the pro-environmental rhetoric of incumbents, you should first check out into the details. Some of the more egregious items passed by this Congress and signed by Clinton include:

- All funds were eliminated for the United Nations Population Fund which works to address the global environmental challenge of rapid population growth.

- Existing CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) Standards were frozen by banning any updates by the Department of Transportation. These standards, aimed at reducing both fuel consumption and pollution, have not been updated since 1985. Current standards do not reflect available technology nor the types of personal vehicles on the road. For example, the current 27.5 mpg standard for passenger vehicles does not apply to sport utility vehicles, despite their increasing passenger use.

- Congress delayed for two years any further consideration of new regulatory requirements to protect the public from the long-term liability of hard rock mining damage to public lands and passed provisions what would waive environmental review on grazing permits on 25 million acres of public lands.

Some with a lower profile, but just as bad:

- Environmental review was circumvented for a California Toll Road (and several other pork barrel highway projects). This is where the Congress waives environmental review requirements to expedite construction of roads. This particular road would cut through park land in Orange and San Diego counties and pass through the Camp Pendleton Marine Base. This project has been deemed unnecessary by both the EPA and an independent group of traffic engineers due to an absence of substantial traffic demand and numerous deficiencies. Furthermore, the new toll road would be built through a state park containing a fragile wetland coastal habitat, pristine wildlife, and home to at least six federally listed species (Pacific pocket mouse, southwestern arroyo toad, least Bell's vireo, southwestern willow flycatcher, California gnatcatcher, and tidewater goby).

- They also prohibited the Economic and Statistics Administration and the Department of Census of the U.S. Department of Commerce from expending any of the funds appropriated for those offices for FY 1999 on "Integrated Environmental and Economic Accounting" popularly known as the "Green GDP" Initiative.

The "Green GDP" Initiative sought to remedy the failure of conventional economic statistics such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to account for depletion of natural resources, for serious damage to the environment, and the potential health costs of pollution. The program was designed to provide national statistics highlighting the role of natural resources and the environment in economic productivity and to help the government, the public and investors reach more environmentally sound budgeting, policy-making and investment decisions.

Without these statistics, the Congress and agencies will be more likely to continue to subsidize or charge too little for the use of natural resources, and undervalue more environmentally sound alternatives.

And these are just the "highlights" or should I say low lights? When it comes down to it, those in power are not only unwilling to provide leadership on environmental issues, they go out of their way to sabotage and undermine even rational alternatives.

What a sad state of affairs. When will we wake up? Without sound environmental data and policies we are reduced to dealing with things after the crisis is upon us and the costs are maximized. Sounds like what we really need is a group with a new approach. How about Taxpayers for the Environment? Perhaps that combination could give us what we really need: voters, candidates and leaders as well. Please think globally and vote locally! Sierra Club endorsements may be found at