State of the Union address draws fire from free marketeers and water industry

President Clinton's pronouncements on the environment in his final State of the Union address have been met with a mixture of praise and criticism from environmentalists and free-market policy groups.

Clinton told US voters that global warming is the greatest environmental challenge in the new century, but that meeting the challenge could stimulate economic growth in the US.

He also called for the expansion of the biofuel programme in order to help US farmers, proposed the creation of a permanent land and wildlife conservation fund and asked for support for new funding for measures designed to make US communities more ‘liveable.’

The President failed to make any mention of drinking water infrastructure needs despite calls from the American Water Works Association (AWWA) to make this a priority.

Clinton said greenhouse gas emissions could be cut without slowing economic growth. New technologies, he said, make it possible to cut emissions and provide growth. He cited the recent launch of cars that achieve 70 to 80 miles a gallon and predicted that efficient production of bio-fuels will eventually provide the equivalent of hundreds of miles from a gallon.

A pro-free enterprise public policy group, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), attacked Clinton’s claim that the challenge of global warming could be met by using new technology without damaging the US economy. The CEI’s Director of Global Warming Policy Myron Ebell called Clinton’s statements “little more than hot air,” saying the President’s ideas on global warming would increase government spending and would be rejected by Congress.

“The President claimed that we can reduce energy use without hurting the economy,” Ebell said in a statement. “We can do this, he said, by using technologies already available. Nothing could be further from the truth. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers recently released a comprehensive study showing that the technology needed to meet Kyoto’s targets at little cost is not available at this time and would require significant costs to develop.”

Clinton had also proposed a tax incentive to encourage the production of clean energy and the purchase of energy-saving homes, cars and appliances. He urged the US car industry to introduce more fuel-efficient models as soon as possible and asked Congress to make clean energy technology available to the developing world in order to create cleaner new jobs in the US. Ebell attacked these proposals saying that US Government programmes promoting alternative energy sources have been a failure. “After 25 years and tens of billions of dollars in government spending, for instance, renewable energy has barely made a dent in energy markets. Further spending on ‘clean’ energy would continue this tragic waste of the American taxpayers’ money,” Ebell said.

The AWWA, meanwhile, expressed disappointed at the President’s omission of any mention of water issues. The AWWA had urged President Clinton to focus on drinking water infrastructure needs in his address. “One invisible but essential need is strengthening our drinking water systems,” said AWWA executive director Jack Hoffbuhr. “Our drinking water systems and their infrastructure are just as important as our roads or the internet. Unfortunately, because the majority of our water systems are underground, they are often forgotten.”

An AWWA spokesperson told edie that he regretted the President’s failure to mention water infrastructure needs, but said there was still time to refocus priorities and make water infrastructure one of them. “We’ve had drinking water and wastewater infrastructure that’s worked very well for 50 years and we have been able to ignore it until now. The time has come to try and change that. We want to raise public awareness of this problem to the same level as for wilderness and global warming issues. Water infrastructure is just as vital as these issues, and if they are not dealt with the consequences could be nothing short of cataclysmic.”

On agriculture, Clinton called for the strengthening of the farm safety net, for more investment in land conservation and the creation of new markets for farmers by expanding bio-based fuels and products programmes.

The Farm Bureau welcomed the proposal but said not enough money had been made available. “”$3.1 billion in assistance is insufficient.,” a Farm Bureau spokesperson told edie. “We are supportive of the bio-based fuels initiative in general. Overall, we are glad the administration has started the debate. They have not always been that active on these issues, instead preferring to let Congress hash it out.”

Clinton claimed he had put to rest the idea that the economy must suffer in order to protect the environment at the same time. As a sign of his administration’s commitment to conservation, Clinton proposed the creation of a permanent conservation fund to restore wildlife, protect coastlines and save notable wild areas such as the California Redwoods and the Florida Everglades. This Lands Legacy endowment would, he said, represent the most enduring investment in land preservation ever proposed in the US Congress.

Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife and Chair of Lands Legacy Task Force, hailed this announcement as the most significant environmental proposal in the State of the Union address. “Ensuring permanent, full funding of our land and wildlife legacy has been something akin to the Holy Grail for the environmental community.”

William H. Meadows, president of the Wilderness Society, agreed: “The Clinton administration has protected over 60 million acres of public lands – more than any administration since Franklin D. Roosevelt. President’s multi-faceted land investment initiative will leave a lasting legacy by strengthening federal efforts to preserve national treasures and provide communities with new resources to protect local green spaces.”

Clinton’s final environmental plea, that US voters support more funding to make communities more ‘liveable,’ was criticised by the CEI on the grounds that a verbal slip betrayed Clinton’s true, ‘big government’ intentions on the matter.

While calling for more funding for advanced transit systems, for the preservation of green spaces in urban areas and for the protection of the Great Lakes, the President mispronounced the word ‘liveable’ as ‘liberal’. “While the President tried to pass this off as a joke, it was more than a mere slip of the tongue,” said the CEI’s Director of Land and Natural Resource Policy David Riggs. “It offered the American people a unique opportunity to see what the federal government has in store for them – a regulatory morass which will tear apart the very fabric of what made this nation great, communities exercising local control over their own destinies. When it comes to development and local land use, individuals in urban and suburban areas can identify what ails them better than a Washington ‘expert.’ In fact, all too frequently, the problem is the Washington expert himself. Clearly, those who are truly fighting for liveable communities are going to have their work cut out for them.”

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