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Thursday, September 30, 2004 - Page updated at 01:05 P.M.
Q&A: The environment & the presidency
What is the role of global warming in the tensions and growing anti-American sentiment in the Middle East? The Middle East is a place where fresh water can be as valuable as oil, and it is a place that is expected to be hit hardest with the effects of global warming. Little is mentioned about this connection, but it seems like it must be an important factor in these growing conflicts. Owen, Seattle
Hal Bernton: I think the biggest interplay right now lies with fact that the onset of global warming intensified pressure to shift away from petroleum and other greenhouse-gas emitting fuels. And, at the same time, the tension in these areas make it politically more dicey for us to rely on these sources of imports. So, both President Bush and Sen. John Kerry are talking about investing in alternative technologies to help free the U.S. from imported oil, with Kerry opting for a plan to meet 20 percent of the U.S. energy needs from renewables by 2020.
Obviously, if the world did shift away from oil, then the Middle East could suffer through weaker oil prices and less revenue. That, in turn, could make it more difficult to cope with the challenges that the region might face from a warming climate. Currently, Saudi Arabia and other countries already spend a lot of money on desalinization plants, and if fresh water became an even scarcer resource, they would devote just that much more money to address basic conditions.
What are your plans for distributing and promoting this series to other newspapers across the United States? Susan Mattison, Mercer Island
Moderator: The series, complete with photographs and graphics, was sent over the Knight Ridder Tribune news service, making it available to several hundred U.S. newspapers, plus Canada and overseas papers.
I agree that the environment is a very important issue to address globally and internationally. Do you think that the market drives the position on the agenda? In other words, big corporations are heard louder than organizations such as the Sierra Club, since they represent profit to the United States. Jenny, Seattle
Hal Bernton: For a lot of corporations, there is a merging of market ad environmental issues. For example, some forest product companies with practices that don't pass muster with conservation groups have faced national and international campaigns to boycott their products. And that has triggered changes in on the ground forest practices. And now, in terms of global warming, many major corporations already face European regulation and feel that some sort of U.S. regulation is inevitable. So they are hoping to see federal regulation, rather than piecemeal regulation at the state or local level. And corporate executives also may see marketing benefits from portraying their companies as taking an active role in combating global warming.
Craig Welch: I think, honestly, that it's less a reflection on corporations or the Sierra Club than it is on us as citizens. We have busy lives and short attention spans. The war in Iraq is an immediate life-and-death struggle for U.S. soldiers and Iraqi citizens, and could alter the balance of global security. The economy dictates how each of us is employed. Those issues dominate our attention, and, therefore, the candidates who seek our votes spend most of their time talking about them. Issues such as the environment tend to fall farther down on the list of priorities.
What is Kerry's real position on the Kyoto protocol? It's my understanding that he is willing to open up the talks again, but what exactly does that mean? Denise, Fremont
Hal Bernton: The United States joined in negotiating the 1997 Kyoto protocol, along with more than 150 other nations. It assigned industrialized nations different targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions but exempted some nations, such as China.
Even the Clinton administration backed away from the final product. The Senate has never brought up the protocol for a formal ratification vote but in a resolution that tested the political sentiment about the treaty, not a single senator voted to ratify it.
During his 1999 campaign for the presidency, President Bush endorsed federal regulation of carbon dioxide from a major source U.S. power plants. But in early 2001, he backed away from such regulation amid pressure from coal and energy lobbyists, who claimed such action might sabotage the U.S. economy.
Bush like challenger John Kerry has been critical of the 1997 Kyoto treaty. Bush has called the treaty an unrealistic, unscientific document that exempted major greenhouse polluters such as China and India while placing "arbitrary" greenhouse-gas caps on developed nations.
Kerry has said while the Kyoto agreement is flawed, there needs to be new international negotiations about how to combat global warming. And he has been harshly critical about the Bush administration's unwillingness to launch such talks. One would presume that such talks could lead to another treaty, one that possibly could win Senate support.
How much influence does the president have on local environmental candidates' policies and campaigns? Sarah Snyder, Shoreline
Hal Bernton: I think that federal policies can become a kind of lightening rod for local candidates, who may react to controversial federal decisions that impact voters. In years past, east of the Cascade Mountains, some local candidates were quick to speak out against the Clinton Administration's willingness to consider Snake River dam removal. And, in some timber communities, local politicians were attacked the major reductions in old-growth logging that reduced forest job opportunities and money that flowed in from timber receipts.
The Bush Admimistration has sought to undo or ease some Clinton-era regulations, including timber management, efforts that have won strong support in some voters and a lot of opposition among others. So, there's plenty of stuff for local candidates to work with.
I was wondering why the article on John Graham doesn't include any comments from public-interest groups about Graham's record, aside from the brief complaint of Riverkeepers that Graham's staffers all looked at their watches during a meeting. There's really much more to say than "even Graham's staunchest critics concede the 47-year-old ... has been a strong advocate for clean-air and other regulations."
For example, Graham's role in the tire-pressure monitoring rule was that of a "strong advocate" for industry interests; Graham forced the auto-safety agency to issue a rule that would have failed to prevent 4,050 injuries and 30 deaths annually compared to the better rule the agency originally intended to issue. It took a court challenge to undo Graham's damage.
Why are these and other examples of the damage wrought by John Graham missing from the profile? Robert Shull, Washington, D.C.
Alex Fryer: I met in person with the executive director of OMB Watch and spoke with the group's staff over the phone on several occasions. I also read Public Citizen's 100-plus page critique of Dr. Graham that was submitted during his nomination in the U.S. Senate. As I sat down to write the profile, I decided to characterize what the public-interest groups were saying instead of quoting them directly. I tried to pick a few examples of regulations and use quotes from people involved. I didn't cite the tire-pressure rule because it wasn't an enivironmental issue.
After months of research on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, I have determined that the costs greatly outweigh the benefits of drilling for oil. Whether it's total monetary profit, independence from foreign nations or wildlife conservation, none of these will benefit from the oil beneath Alaska's surface.
Why is it that President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney continue to debate the significance of domestic oil? Studies show that thousands more jobs could be created as development of alternative energy sources continues. Also, oil recovered from Alaska would not enter the market until 2014 quite possibly later. How does this reduce our foreign dependence now? It doesn't. Scott, Seattle
Craig Welch: These are value questions, and I think the president's position is simply that he thinks the tradeoff is worth it. President Bush has repeatedly said that he believes the amount of land disturbed by drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would be relatively small, less than 1 percent of the refuge, and the amount of oil retrieved though not enough to rid the U.S. of its dependence on foreign oil would still be substantial. The White House also has said that opening ANWR would create tens of thousands of jobs.
The White House maintains it could draw up to one million barrels a day from ANWR, once production was underway. "The amount of oil that would come into the United States as a result of opening ANWR represents 20 years of imports from Saudi Arabia," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said in February 2001. "We can replace 20 years worth of Saudi Arabian imports here at home, if ANWR is opened."
I have read your article and wonder why no one goes after the Department of Transportation in Washington state about the nasty buses running throughout the Puget Sound region, spewing diesel pollution and noise pollution.
Everyone keeps running down the Monorail and other ideas about a rail to cut down the traffic conjestion and the noise and air pollution. Please stand up and go against more buses and more traffic lanes, and do an article about how the buses are polluting our air and that a rail would be much better. Thanks. Sharon McWillis
Craig Welch: Thanks, Sharon. Actually, quite a bit is changing and quickly when it comes to diesel pollution, including from buses. The Clinton administration moved to clean up diesel cars and trucks. The Bush administration has moved to clean up diesel from many other types of engines. But diesel engines can last a very long time, so there are voluntary efforts particularly on the West Coast to try to make changes more quickly.
For example, the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, among others, helped convince the Washington state Legislature last year to more quickly clean up school bus emissions. The EPA contributed money, and, as of earlier this month, more than 1,800 have been retrofitted with equipment that cuts diesel tailpipe emissions by up to 90 percent. Over the next four years, the state and the Clean Air Agency hope to convert another 5,000 school buses.
Pierce County a few years ago started transitioning its diesel bus fleet to one powered by cleaner-burning compressed natural gas. King County Metro last year finished retrofitting 800 buses to reduce emissions and its entire fleet now runs on ultra-low sulfur diesel. Kitsap Transit committed two years ago to buying 30 new "clean diesel" buses and reducing air emissions from its fleet by 90 percent by 2004.
I've stopped eating fish not because of pollution (good enough reason) but because of the decimation of fish stock in the oceans by overfishing. What else can one person do? Susan, Port Angeles
Craig Welch: I wouldn't be so quick to opt out of fish. Traces of contaminants have been found in a wide range of foods, not just fish. And among U.S. fish stocks, some ave been overfished, including several species of Pacific rockfish and ling cod, which now are being protected by new fishing quotas. But many major species, including Alaska pollock the species that yields the biggest annual harvest and produces fillets, fish sticks and surimi are being fished at sustainable levels, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. The service's annual report on the status of fish stocks notes that of the 894 federally managed fish stocks, 76 are classified as overfished, and 60 are experiencing overfishing. For more information, check out this Web site.
Why are airplanes not regulated for polluting the air (like automobiles and trucks are)? I ask because you could not engineer a better machine to pollute the atmosphere. They operate at 20,000+ feet. They burn thousands of pounds of fuel and leave the emissions in the atmosphere. They concentrate around major metropolitan areas that have airports, compounding the problem. George Holburn, Lebanon, Tenn.
Craig Welch: A report by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) determined that aircraft are responsible for 3.5 pecent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, a figure that could increase to 10 percent by 2050. In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency just last fall proposed plans to strengthening its own air-pollution standards for commercial aircraft. But those new rules would in essence make the internal policies of the United States consistent with those of the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization. But, according to the EPA, about 94 percent of engines already meet or exceed those air-pollution guidelines.
What was the motivation behind the Bush administration's derailment of efforts to cut emissions from cargo cariers, tankers and cruise ships? Sharon Sarver, Marietta, Miss.
Craig Welch: That's a good question, Sharon. The administration has said that because shipping is international, and most of the ships that come to the West Coast are owned and operated by foreign companies, it is an issue best resolved through international channels.
Shipping companies have expressed concern that it's too technically complicated and unfair for them to have to meet higher air-quality standards in, say, Los Angeles, than they would have to meet in Singapore.
The International Maritime Organization has a treaty that essentially sets a frame work for dealing with air pollution from ocean-going vessels. That treaty is expected to go into force in 2005. At that time, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States will push for stronger air-pollution standards. Air pollution regulators back those efforts, but are concerned that such international negotiations take time and offer no guarantees. In the meantime, the EPA, West Coast states and local clean-air regulators are working with the shipping industry to find voluntary ways to clean air emissions more quickly.
Today in Seattle, for example, Princess Cruises has agreed to stop idling its two largest cruise ships while they are docked in port. Instead, they will plug into the city's electrical grid, which will dramatically reduce air pollution.
If everyone is so concerned about global warming, why is there such interest among environmental groups in removing the dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers? Aren't these dams providing electrical energy without pollution? Robert Webb, Walla Walla
Hal Bernton: Different environmental groups have different environmental issues. Saving salmon has been a major cause among Northwest groups that have called for dam removals to aid threatened and endangered runs, and they view the benefits of the fish as worth the loss of the hydropower, which as you point out, does not result in greeenhouse gas emissions.
Many of these groups are supporting the development of other forms of renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, as alternatives to hydropower generated by the dams. But as our story today on a Nantucket wind-power park pointed out, developing other alternative sources of energy also can generate plenty of controversy. That East Coast project would be located in shallow waters of Nantucket Sound, with 130 large turbine-topped towers, and the prospect of those structures in the middle of the sound has alarmed many Cape Cod residents disturbed by the impacts of views, recreation, and possible impacts on fish and wildlife.
Why is the environment a topic that doesn't seem to get much attention from candidates? It affects so much, so many people in so many ways, it is amazing that it isn't held higher. It is more than spotted owls and tree huggers! Clean air & water, wilderness areas, national parks and monuments, oceans, streams, lakes, toxic cleanup, radioactive waste, fish & wildlife, new energy sources, green living, on and on. Without a clean, healthy place to live we have nothing. Darryl, Seattle
Hal Bernton: One source I talked to said that Sen. John Kerry talked a lot about the environmental issues earlier in the campaign, including a stop in Houston at an Earth Day celebration. But the source said Kerry was frustrated when the press didn't pick up on these issues, and complained of not getting any political traction, or momentum, from speaking out on the environment. Robert Kennedy Jr., in an appearance on National Public Radio, also made this comment.
Right now, I imagine that Kerry is getting advice from his aides on what his message should be. And though he touches on environmental issues in some of his campaign speeches, his handlers must not want him to make it a focal point. One would assume that, at least at this point, focusing on the environment may not be viewed as a good way to attract swing voters. Same for President Bush.
But in the Northwest, Bush has tried to pick up some political points for passage of legislation to speed up thinning of fire-prone forests, and also has tried to point to improvements in some salmon stocks as evidence of his administration's good stewardship.
In the weeks ahead, we could yet see more of a campaign focus on the environment, and it could also surface in the debates.
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