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Environmentalists Voice Concern GOP Majority May Curb Programs

Conservatives could now control key committees that have played big roles

ENVIRONMENTAL issues in the Republican-dominated 104th Congress are likely to have a ``greener'' hue - green as in money. A key will be how to keep from wasting funds while providing more for industries impacting the environment.

Majority lawmakers will be pushing for a greater accounting of the costs and benefits of environmental regulation. They are expected to be friendlier toward mayors' and governors' complaints that Uncle Sam is burdening state and local governments with expensive pollution cleanup. And they no doubt will put greater emphasis on the financial interests of private-property owners.

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These are all issues Republicans and relatively conservative Democrats pushed during the 103rd Congress. The day after the mid-term elections, Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas was quoted as saying that he intends to ``reaffirm the sanctity of the rights of private-property owners on any environmental bill that is passed.''

A few days later House Speaker-to-be Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia announced the first committees to be abolished, including the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, whose chairman, Gerry Studds (D) of Massachusetts, has been a leader in the effort to reauthorize the Endangered Species Act.

Among congressional Democrats and environmentalists there are rumors that the House Natural Resources Committee may get the ax or at least be rolled into some other committee. Chairing that committee has been George Miller (D) of California, a long-time advocate for reform of federal water and land-use law.

Other committees and subcommittees are sure to follow a markedly different philosophical line under new chairmanship. Sen. Mark Hatfield (R) of Oregon, expected to chair the Senate Appropriations Committee, will push for more logging in the Pacific Northwest. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is likely to be headed by Frank Murkowski (R) of Alaska, an advocate of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Environmentalists view the congressional overturning with considerable wariness.

``Some of the Republican reforms, such as opening committee meetings and banning proxy votes, may work to the environmental community's advantage,'' observes Jim Owens in a post-election analysis for the Western Ancient Forest Campaign. ``But on the whole, most Republican initiatives affecting the environment are likely to be egregious at best and Draconian at worst.''

The League of Conservation Voters, a Washington-based advocacy group that rates lawmakers on their environmental record, scored Republicans in the 103rd Congress 50 percent lower than Democrats. Now, Republicans will be heading committees (and just as important, appointing staffs) that oversee regulatory agencies and approve budgets.

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On the other hand, some observers note, many major environmental initiatives - the Superfund toxic waste cleanup program, for example - have wide bipartisan support. And many important legislative gains in recent years, such as the Clean Water Act and major improvements to the Clean Air Act, were passed during Republican administrations.

For some activists, the ascendancy of more fiscally conservative Republicans provides an opportunity to push for an end to what they see as wasteful subsidies and tax breaks to industries that impact the environment as well as greater control over US support for such international agencies as the World Bank.

``We see an opening for cutting harmful spending, getting rid of costly tax subsidies that hurt the environment, and retargeting foreign aid to benefit the poor and the environment,'' says Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth. The organization is promoting its ``green scissors'' campaign launched last year with a coalition of other environmental groups as well as Citizens for a Sound Economy and the National Taxpayers Union.

They say more than $6 billion could be saved yeary by cutting subsidies for irrigation, mining, logging, and ranching on public lands, reducing US nuclear programs, and curtailing federal subsidies.

Earlier this year, Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee issued a report titled ``Taking from the Taxpayer: Public Subsidies for Natural Resource Development.''

Citing such things as below-cost timber sales on federal land, committee chairman George Miller (D) of California criticized ``a dizzying array of price supports, tax breaks, low-cost loans, and exemptions from environmental laws.''


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