Bush performs U-turn on power plant emissions policy

President George W. Bush has backtracked on campaign pledge to limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, contradicting the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and drawing international condemnation.

On 13 March, Bush said in a letter to Republican senator Chuck Hagel that, although his administration “takes the issue of global warming very seriously”, he did “not believe, however, that government should impose on power plants mandatory emissions reductions for carbon dioxide, which is not a ‘pollutant’ under the Clean Air Act”. The letter said the mandatory controls on CO2 would lead to higher electricity prices as more utilities shifted to natural gas from cheaper coal, and that “we must be very careful not to take actions that could harm consumers”. “This is especially true given the incomplete state of scientific knowledge of the causes of, and solutions to, global climate change,” it continued, returning to Bush’s earlier uncertainty about the existence of global warming.

However, in a policy speech last September, Bush said that he would “require all power plants to meet clean air standards in order to reduce emissions of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury and carbon dioxide within a reasonable period of time”. At the time, Bush even ridiculed Al Gore for only favouring voluntary reductions and won praise from environmentalists. The U-turn came only days before Republican congressmen were to introduce legislation requiring limits on CO2 released from plants as part of Bush’s “four pollutant strategy” in his original energy package. The strategy was even championed by President Clinton in the last days of his administration (see related story) and only days before Bush’s announcement, EPA Administrator Christy Whitman reasserted the pledge at a G8 meeting, saying it showed the US was intent on addressing climate change (see related story). Bush did restate in the letter, however, that we would press for regulation of the three other pollutants dealt with in the strategy: mercury, sulphur and nitrogen oxide.

A week prior to Bush’s announcement four conservative and influential Republican senators had reportedly raised concerns with the president about the administration’s views on climate change and the carbon dioxide issue.

Explaining the U-turn, Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly told senators that the original position on CO2 was a mistake and Bush aides said they did not realise during the campaign that CO2 was not a pollutant under the Clean Air Act.

In the same week as UN General Secretary Kofi Annan urged the US to cut CO2 emissions and another scientific study confirmed the build-up of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere (see story in ‘world’ section), the policy change was seized on internationally. “I am concerned about President Bush’s remarks that more research is needed into the causes of climate change before we know what the solutions are,” commented the European environment commissioner, Margot Wallström. “The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change has once again confirmed the evidence on the causes of climate change and the solution, nobody should ignore these warnings.”

The Japanese environment ministry reportedly said the announcement was regrettable, while Germany has called for the Kyoto Protocol to be ratified without the US, if necessary. US environmental groups held a joint press conference outside the White House to protest against the decision. “Not only has the administration reneged on a campaign commitment, but in opposing the Kyoto protocol and power plant pollution controls, it has effectively blocked the only two proposed vehicles for fighting global warming…while offering no alternative path to protect the planet,” said Fred Krupp, executive director of the NGO, Environmental Defence.

“By failing to curb carbon dioxide pollution, President Bush is betraying his pledge to the American people and taking a dive on a crisis with disastrous consequences,” said Carl Pope, the Sierra Club’s executive director, while Phil Clapp, executive director of the National Environmental Trust said that “the president has walked away from his most explicit environmental promise in the campaign”.

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