Now it appears they’re ready to try a skirmish on for size. Tuesday, EPA chief Christine Whitman announced she will go ahead with a Clinton-Administration plan to force uber-corporation General Electric to foot the bill for a $460 million clean-up-by-dredging of an area of the northern Hudson River that the company’s plants used as a dumping ground for 1.3 million pounds of PCBs until 1977, when the toxic substance was banned by the federal government.
GE has spent millions on a public-relations and lobbying campaign to nix the plan, and CEO Jack Welch even went to Whitman personally. The company insisted Tuesday that the dredging operation the largest in U.S. history would "do more harm than good," stirring up PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, now safely buried under layers of sediment on the river bottom, and besides that would visit "decades of disruption" on area residents. And yet Whitman remained unmoved.
Well, almost. The EPA did announce one substantive change to the original Clinton plan: the dredging will now be carried out in phases, with government scientists (and, likely, GOP pollsters) evaluating at each step whether the cleanup is an effort worth its while. In other words, Bush and Whitman will have plenty of opportunities to back off from this fight in the years ahead. But for now, the Bush team took one look at the alternative headlines like "Bush Lets Big Corporation Off Hook On River Cleanup" and laced up its gloves.
But if Bush wants to truly alter the public perception of his White House’s environmental stance, he’ll need a more visible fight news coverage Tuesday of the EPA’s decision was mostly as a local story (with the exception of GE corporate child MSNBC, which gave it high billing) and maybe even one that Bill Clinton didn’t think of first.
Luckily for Bush, several opportunities to visibly take on Big Business over the environment are on the horizon:
Big Cars. One way to decrease U.S. dependence on foreign oil is to decrease consumption, and one way for the government to do that is increasing Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards for SUVs and light trucks. Those vehicles have long been subject to lower standards because of their supposed use mainly for business activity. But these days, as Detroit reaps its most abundant profits selling the vehicles to soccer moms and dads, there’s a push to tighten standards and let carmakers start using better engine technology to make up the difference.
The debate is burning hot right now, with the National Academy of Sciences concluding in a report released Tuesday maintaining that that carmakers have the technology to bring SUVs up to miles-per-gallon snuff. And while the House Energy and Commerce Committee has passed a compromise proposal to tighten the standards by about 1 mpg (theoretically saving 5 billion gallons between 2004 and 2010), House Democrats joined by their Senate counterparts readying for their own crack at energy legislation are pushing for a much more ambitious measure.
Bush has largely stayed mum on the issue, sensitive to Detroit’s mortal fear of anything that cuts into its already precarious profit margins. But aggressive CAFE standards wouldn’t bankrupt the industry, and loudly acceding to Democrats’ efforts to raise them significantly could surprise Bush’s critics and put the president in a good environmental light at least outside of Michigan.
Big Energy. As it gave the GE story lead status in Wednesday’s paper, the New York Times almost helpfully put another story atop its business section. "Some Energy Executives Urge U.S. Shift on Global Warming," went the headline, and the gist of the story was that the same energy companies casually vilified as Bush’s corrupters by poll respondents BP Amoco, Enron, Royal Dutch/Shell have actually begun making major moves to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions on their own. And they’re wondering when Bush is going to catch up.
Talk about a dream political opportunity Big Energy actually waiting to be taken on by the president they gave all that campaign cash to. Most of these companies saw the need for a cleaner and more diverse energy landscape a long time ago (or at least the need to respond to future governments’ wishes for same) and have invested accordingly. Bush, meanwhile, has been blithely mentioning since Bonn a son-of-Kyoto type initiative that will demonstrate his Administration’s commitment to fighting global warming. Something aimed right at Big Energy could be Bush’s solution.
And if Bush could convince his friend, Enron CEO Kenneth Lay, to squawk even louder than Jack Welch, he might get those 2004 soccer-mom votes yet.