Environmental Protections Weakened Under Bush Administration

March 18, 2004

by Kelly Hill

Former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner believes the Bush administration is gutting the agency she led for eight years.

Browner spoke at Boalt Hall on Thursday afternoon. The lecture was sponsored by the College of Natural Resources’ Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management as part of an ongoing colloquium series.

Browner had the longest tenure of any EPA administrator, heading up a $7 billion-dollar-a-year, 18,000-employee agency under former President Bill Clinton. Among other accomplishments, she was responsible for coordinating a $1 billion program to clean up the nation’s Brownfields sites.

Browner said that with the country focused on issues such as the war in Iraq, homeland security and the economy, not much press coverage or public attention is focused on the changes that the Bush administration is making to environmental rules.

“It is not simply a question of benign neglect — rather, it is actual destruction,” Browner told the crowd. “They are systematically dismantling the system that has brought us progress.”

Among the examples she cited:
* Withdrawing the U.S. from the Kyoto protocol on greenhouse gas emissions.
* Allowing national monuments to be open to oil and gas exploration.
* Allowing EPA lawsuits against some of the nation’s dirtiest, oldest power plants to stagnate in the court system.
* Proposing a weaker mercury emissions standard than a plan by EPA under Clinton; the Bush plan, Browner said, would allow polluters to release mercury at higher levels for a longer period of time than the previous plan.

In discussing the role of the private sector in environmental progress, Browner said that one of America’s strengths was being “willing to set standards, even if we don’t know how we’ll meet them” because it encourages the private sector to invest in discovering new technologies that are effective, often cheaper than first expected and which create jobs.

Browner also said that the Bush administration has weakened the agency’s enforcement. During her tenure, the agency took a “sector approach” that encouraged many companies with similar violations to clean up voluntarily, Browner said. Now enforcers work at the older, slower method of building each case separately without taking industry-wide problems into account.

“It’s not fair to those who do comply, if their competitors are allowed to not comply,” she said, adding that the Bush administration has “taken the environmental cop off the beat.”

She also noted the importance of informing the public about environmental hazards in order to gain support for widespread change, such as cutting down on greenhouse gasses.
Browner is currently chair of the board of directors of the National Audubon Society and a board member of Environment2004, a partisan group that opposes the Bush administration’s environment-related policies.