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Many new constraints for Bush on the environment

Congress and US courts have hit the administration with a series of policy setbacks – on greenhouse-gas emissions, strip mining, and logging.

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The Bush administration is taking more flak for its environmental policies from Congress, federal courts, official government watchdog agencies, and the court of public opinion. One probable outcome: It will be more difficult for President Bush, with less than two years left in office, to push environmental policy in the direction he wants.

Federal courts have recently blocked or changed administration policies regarding forest management and the strip mining of coal. In response to the US Supreme Court's global warming ruling last week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been forced to allow states to proceed with efforts to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from motor vehicles.

In another administration setback, the Interior Department's inspector general (IG) reported recently that a senior political appointee there – an official without training in the natural sciences – rewrote the conclusions of US Fish & Wildlife Service scientists regarding endangered species and critical habitat. Interior's official watchdog also confirmed that the appointee sent internal documents to industry lobby-ists, in violation of federal rules. "Policy trumps science on many occasions," said one Interior lawyer in his statement to the IG.

While these charges are likely to result in no more than a rhetorical spanking by Democrats, who now control powerful congressional committees, other friends of the administration are snarled in legal charges regarding environmental issues.

In late March, J. Steven Griles, the former second in command at Interior and now an oil and gas lobbyist, pleaded guilty in federal court to obstruction of justice in lying to the Senate about his relationship with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Last week, the head of an advocacy group supportive of Bush administration environmental policies was told by investigators that she is a prosecution target in the corruption inquiry involving Mr. Abramoff, who urged clients to donate to the group in return for access to Interior officials. Italia Federici – who formed the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, along with former Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform – reportedly faces up to five charges.

Even before Democrats took control of Congress in January, lawmakers of both parties were burrowing into alleged wrongdoing at Interior, which manages 500 million acres of federal land, most of it in the West. Now a fight is brewing over administration plans to change the Endangered Species Act. As reported by Salon.com, the draft plan limits species and habitat protection in ways that could favor logging, mining, and other development, and gives more regulatory power to states.

While environmentalists and legal analysts are hailing last week's Supreme Court decision on climate change as the most important ruling on the environment in years, other recent court rulings are significant as well.

•The high court last week ruled that coal-fired power plants must include new pollution controls when such plants are expanded.

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•A week earlier, a federal district court in West Virginia granted a temporary restraining order limiting coal mining that involves the removal of mountaintops and the filling of valleys. Critics say this pollutes rivers and streams in violation of the Clean Water Act.

•Also in recent days, federal judges in San Francisco and Seattle took aim at the administration's logging policies in the West. Judge Phyllis Hamilton, in San Francisco, ruled that the administration was trying to manage national forests without proper environmental review and that it did not adequately consider public input in setting new management practices designed to allow for more logging. In Seattle last week, Judge Ricardo Martinez ruled that the administration had illegally suppressed and misrepresented the views of dissenting scientists when it eased logging restrictions in the Pacific Northwest.

As a result of a lawsuit challenging logging proposals in Tongass National Forest in Alaska, the US Forest Service last week agreed to drop plans for new road-building and clear-cutting in nine large areas until a new management plan is completed.

Meanwhile, polls show that Americans are becoming greener in outlook. Gallup reported Friday that an "overwhelming majority" of Americans support proposals to strengthen government restrictions on greenhouse-gas emissions and to spend more taxpayer money on developing alternative sources of fuel and energy.


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