Goring the environment

We often find that the pleasant things in life are better remembered than the unpleasant, and before we all run off the end of the earth in admiration of newly minted Nobel Prize-winning environmentalist Al Gore, it would be useful to recall how much damage the Clinton administration, of which Gore was a very influential part, did to the environment. Boiler plate political rhetoric and Oscar-winning movies after Gore left public office are less compelling than his administration’s actions when he was in office.

The need for new regulations governing (mostly foreign) mining operations on the public’s land was on the administration’s doorstep when Clinton took office on Jan. 20, 1993. The administration waited until Jan. 20, 2001, the day George W. Bush took office, to act. That made it easy for Bush to quickly revoke the new regulations. For eight years the Clinton administration dithered, delayed, consensus-built, and timidly avoided offending Canada’s gold mining industry in Nevada, where most such mining was done. Consensus building became a code term—when it was used in the Clinton era it meant the administration was unwilling to act.

After proposing, early in the administration, a program to curb taxpayer subsidies of ranchers, mining corporations and logging interests—proposals with great import for the protection of Nevada resources—the Clinton administration caved in “at the first whisper” of criticism, as a Sierra magazine writer put it. It became a pattern—a hesitant administration scared of its own shadow repeatedly flinched and abandoned its own pledges.

In February 1994, environmental groups picketed Clinton Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in Reno. One sign read, “Consensus = Smoke and Mirrors.”

In April 1999, environmental groups wrote to Gore accusing the administration of breaking its promise to do something about causes of global warming: “We are writing to voice deep disappointment with the lack of an Administration proposal to require significant reductions in global warming pollution. We are particularly frustrated that the Administration has not sought meaningful emission reductions from either power plants or passenger vehicles.” President Clinton responded with a letter that did not deny the groups’ claims, only talked about more time, more talk.

Minority leaders accused the Clinton administration of abandoning promises to do something about environmental racism—toxic uses of land near minority communities that lead to higher rates of disease.

In 1998, the Clinton administration opened 4 million acres of the environmentally sensitive National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska to oil drilling, making it easier for the Bush administration to float similar ideas.

When given a choice between economic and human interests, the Clinton administration nearly always came down on the side of major campaign contributors.

In 2000, some environmental groups held back for a long time from endorsing Gore for president, finally doing so only because he was better than George Bush.

Is the Clinton/Gore record on the environment better than the Bush/Cheney record? Sure. Is that really the standard we want our leaders to meet? Hardly. Nor should it be repeated in a new Democratic administration.