Environmentalists Worry About Second Bush Term

Environmentalists see some of their worst fears playing out as President Bush moves to cement a second-term agenda that includes getting more timber, oil and gas from public lands and relying on the market rather than regulation to curb pollution.

Bush's top energy priority -- opening an Alaska wildlife refuge to oil drilling -- is shaping up as an early test of GOP gains in Congress.

"This is going to be a definitional battle, and we're ready," said Deb Callahan, president of the League of Conservation Voters (search).

Though the election didn't emphasize such issues, administration officials believe the results validated their belief that many environmental decisions are better made by the marketplace, landowners and state and local governments.

James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (search), said the administration will continue a "partnership with the oil and gas sector" but also will work with conservation organizations -- as long as they are "willing to engage constructively on defining priorities and practices in domestic production."

Bush's environmental priority is to rewrite the Clean Air Act (search) to set annual nationwide limits on three major air pollutants from power plants and to allow marketplace trading of pollution rights rather than regulation to meet those goals.

He does not plan to change his mind on his rejection of the Kyoto (search) international climate treaty that would impose mandatory caps on carbon dioxide emissions. "Kyoto's unworkable," Connaughton said.

Because of an environmental group's lawsuit, the EPA is preparing to issue first-ever regulations to cut mercury pollution from coal-burning power plants and new standards for cutting soot in the air and reducing power plant pollution that drifts between states.

Mike Leavitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (search), foresees more EPA water monitoring and preparations against chemical and biological attacks.

"I believe the mission that the president has given me in a second term, and the agenda and the philosophy that was validated by the election, was more progress, faster, being achieved in a way that will maintain economic competitiveness as a nation," he said.

Republicans in Congress plan to re-examine other landmark 1970s laws: the Endangered Species Act (search) protecting rare plant and animal species and their habitats, and the National Environmental Policy Act (search) that requires the government to judge beforehand if actions might damage natural resources.

One area where environmentalists and the White House could find agreement is ocean issues. The administration is looking at setting catch quotas for individual fish species, new protections for fragile coral reefs and ecosystem-based management of rivers and streams, Connaughton said.

Some huge regional issues also will get attention. They include restoring the Florida Everglades (search), aiding the recovery of Pacific Northwest salmon, improving water quality in the Great Lakes and dealing with drought in the West and coastal erosion in Louisiana.

The administration put off until after the election a final decision on a plan to allow road building and logging on 58 million acres of remote forests where both are now banned.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton's agency is rewriting 162 plans for managing about one of every 10 acres in the United States. The decisions will affect whether wildlife protections or new oil and gas drilling projects are favored. Norton wants to give local governments more say.

Administration officials say they will more broadly apply the "healthy forests" law that Congress approved in his first term. It lets companies log large, commercially valuable trees in national forests in exchange for clearing smaller, more fire-prone trees and brush.

The administration wants forest managers to clear such trees and underbrush from up to 4 million acres at risk of fire, about 300,000 acres more than current efforts. It hopes to double that to 8 million acres within a decade, said Agriculture Department Undersecretary Mark Rey, who directs forest policy.

Environmentalists still view the courts as their last resort.

The day after the election, the staff of law firm Earthjustice (search) "gathered to face the news that the most anti-environmental administration will be back for four more years," Buck Parker, the firm's executive director wrote supporters. But, he added, "We're more determined than ever to carry on.