Congress is back in town, and those in charge have crafted an agenda that reflects a truly puzzling disdain for the protection of our natural resources. The Senate has held hearings on plans to gut the Clean Air Act through President Bush's Clear Skies initiative (or, more accurately, his Dirty Skies initiative). The House has held hearings on the administration's deeply flawed energy policy. The Pentagon has asked Congress for a free pass on crucial environmental protections. The President and his allies in Congress are once again pushing to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration. And later this year, House and Senate leaders will offer up plans to roll back the Endangered Species Act. We have our work cut out for us, but we're fighting back.
In the first few weeks of 2005, NRDC activists sent 359,900 messages to Congress opposing drilling in the Arctic refuge. Although industry continues to exert its influence behind the scenes, many members of Congress (moderate Republicans and Democrats alike) remain strongly opposed to the Bush administration's backward energy policy. They, too, want to see the Arctic and other fragile wildlands left untouched. Right now we're eagerly working with Congress to craft smaller, more focused bills that promote energy efficiency and greater use of renewable energy supplies -- bills that make real, long-term economic sense.
Congress should say no to anyone who wishes to lay waste to our shared resources.
Energy issues are only part of the picture. In January, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the chairman of the environment and public works committee, announced his intention to pass the president's Dirty Skies initiative. This bill would rewrite the Clean Air Act to allow, for example, aging power plants to make technical upgrades without incorporating modern pollution controls -- in effect, lining industry's pockets without decreasing emissions of mercury or smog-causing sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. Today's power plants release 45 tons of mercury into our skies each year; this poison accumulates in the fatty tissues of fish and, in turn, is passed on to America's children even before they leave their mothers' wombs. Under the Clean Air Act, that amount would drop to five tons a year by 2008. Dirty Skies outlines no plan to ever reduce mercury emissions to that level. In response, we have testified before the Senate and are working with members of Congress to stave off a full vote.
We're also calling attention to another persistent problem: Defense Department exemptions. Over the past two years, Congress has granted the Pentagon permission to duck the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and it has considered requests for exemptions from Superfund, the Clean Air Act, and other laws that safeguard the health of American troops and civilians who live near military bases. These exemptions would cut costs for the Defense Department by allowing, for example, the military to leave behind explosives and munitions after training operations. This year, the Pentagon will use the war in Iraq as an excuse to ask for exemptions again.
Congress should say no to anyone who wishes to plunder or lay waste to our shared resources, but it's never that easy. And yet, the stakes are so high that there may be room to forge new alliances with members of Congress who are not willing to sacrifice the health of their constituents to powerful corporations hell-bent on short-term profits. We plan to engage in constructive conversation. But we will never compromise our values or those of our members.
John H. Adams