WASHINGTON — Heeding disturbing new warnings that the Earth's ozone layer is being destroyed at a startling pace, President Bush called Friday for a ban on use and production of ozone-depleting chemicals by the turn of the century, if safe alternatives can be developed.
The President's announcement, made as Bush dispatched Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William K. Reilly to London for a world conference on the ozone layer, marked a major shift in U.S. policy.
The Reagan Administration had endorsed only a 50% reduction by 1999 in chlorofluorocarbons--or CFCs, the man-made chemicals that are destroying the ozone layer.
Bush, who announced the policy shift in a speech to the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, indicated that he had been swayed by mounting studies indicating that the previously targeted CFC reduction will do little to ease the threat to the ozone layer, which protects the planet from lethal doses of solar ultraviolet radiation.
'May Not Be Enough'
The President praised the U.S. involvement in the Montreal Protocol of 1987, which set the earlier reduction goal. But he added that "recent studies indicate this 50% reduction may not be enough."
While Bush's remarks based the total phase-out of CFCs on availability of environmentally acceptable substitutes, that qualifier was viewed as more rhetorical than real. Industry giants such as DuPont, which produces the chemical, have said they can develop substitutes before the end of the century.
Nonetheless, Bush's remarks were not greeted with universal applause. The Natural Resources Defense Council, through a Washington spokesman, said CFCs should be phased out faster.
"The schedule of the year 2000 is too protracted, and there should be a total phase-out by the year 1995," said David Wirth, the NRDC's senior attorney.
He noted that the President's qualifier was a "giant loophole that just leaves too much of an out. The question that should be asked is, 'What policies will encourage the most rapid development and deployment of substitutes?' The answer to that is the quickest possible deadline, without the contingency."
Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.) said the United States "must move faster" to rid the atmosphere of the chemicals. But Chafee, who introduced a bill Thursday to provide a more rapid phase-out of the chemicals, also called Bush's move "a very encouraging step."
Bush's announcement makes the United States the latest nation to join a burgeoning drive to save the planet's upper atmosphere, a movement that is expected to gather even more momentum with the 110-nation London conference--called by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher--and at a May meeting in Helsinki, at which the Montreal Protocol is expected to be formally reconsidered.
Environment ministers of the 12-nation European Community called Thursday for a total CFC ban by the turn of the century, a declaration that surprised the U.S. Administration.
EPA officials said the European announcement provided an added push to force the White House to commit to a total CFC ban. The EPA quietly has urged the President for a week to make the announcement before Reilly left for London; the newly appointed EPA administrator made a personal pitch to Bush to do so on Thursday.
"We'd look foolish if we didn't say it," said one EPA official, who noted that even manufacturers expect to have substitutes in place by the year 2000.
May Raise the Stakes
The Bush announcement is expected to give Reilly a much stronger hand in London and raise the stakes in an expected confrontation between industrialized nations, which are demanding the ban, and struggling countries, which consider it too expensive and less environmentally important.
Environmental officials in the industrialized nations have anxiously monitored new scientific evidence showing a far more serious erosion of the stratospheric ozone layer than believed when the 50% reduction agreement was signed in 1987. Indeed, scientists recently said there were enough destructive chemicals in the atmosphere over the Arctic to destroy the ozone layer there at the rate of 1% per day, depending on weather conditions.
Between 1969 and 1986, ozone levels have declined by an annual average of 2.3% in the northern latitudes, including Canada and northern England; by 3% over the northern United States and southern Europe; and by 1.7% over the southern United States. Ozone levels are even lower in winter months.
In the view of many, taking a strong stand to protect the ozone layer or to limit the so-called greenhouse effect has also become a matter of good politics.
Bush, for example, courted environmentalists in his election campaign, pledging among other things to lessen the use of chlorofluorocarbons and to ban them. But until Friday, he had offered no timetable for the chemicals' phase-out.