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The Better Friend

October 01, 2000

Just as energy has become a hot topic in the 2000 presidential campaign, Vice President Al Gore has pulled a rabbit out of the hat by getting President Clinton to withdraw oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in hopes of dampening oil prices--a strategy that Gore himself opposed just a few months back. "Politics!" retorted Republican George W. Bush. And he's basically correct.

But Bush ventures onto thin ice when he blames the oil crisis on the Clinton-Gore administration, accusing it of having no energy policy. In fact, the administration has a number of energy conservation and alternative energy proposals before Congress, but they have been blocked or slashed by the Republican leadership. And Gore has outlined an energy plan in his typically exhaustive detail, from solar panels to the weatherizing of homes.

Until Friday, it was hard to tell what Bush's energy policy was: None was listed in the issues section of his Internet Web site. But then he announced a 10-year, $7.1-billion program that includes putting pressure on OPEC countries to produce more crude, a limited moratorium on drilling off the coasts of California and Florida and boosting natural gas production in Canada and Mexico.

Bush's most controversial proposal would allow exploration and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve on Alaska's North Slope. The preserve could hold as much as 16 billion barrels, but it would take years for the oil to be brought to market. Furthermore, drilling in the fragile tundra is opposed by the administration and all major environmental groups. Opening the preserve would be a mistake, for it would have no effect on the immediate crisis. Conservation and renewable energy proposals supported by the administration could produce results sooner.

On the related subject of the environment, Bush is vulnerable for his record as governor of Texas. A visit to Washington state on Sept. 14 was one of the few times he raised an environmental issue with Gore. Bush challenged his opponent on the "crumbling" state of national parks and chided him for failing to take a firm position on whether to breach Snake River dams to rescue the annual salmon run, a highly charged environmental issue.

These are risky subjects for Bush. On the national parks front, critics note that Texas, with a $186-million maintenance backlog, ranks 49th in the nation in investment in state parks. National park disrepair goes back decades, largely due to the reluctance of Republicans in Congress to spend more. Meanwhile, the administration has tapped a new source of funds: higher entrance fees for park repairs.

Bush was right on Gore's double talk on the salmon issue: The vice president avoided taking sides by calling for more negotiations to find a solution. But Bush is wrong in opposing plans to breach the dams. The government has spent an estimated $3 billion over 20 years on failed efforts to revive America's salmon runs. Scientists now say the only solution is to breach the dams and allow the fish to swim up to their spawning grounds. That should be done.

Earlier, Bush called for allocation of $1 billion annually to the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund for state and federal conservation programs, declaring the fund had been decimated in recent years. In fact, the diversion of money from this fund to general spending started in the Reagan administration and continued when Bush's father was president. The Clinton administration is nearing final passage of a bill to fully finance the fund.

Bush faces hurdles like these on most environmental issues. Clinton and Gore have already been there and, often, done that. Bush complains that federal rules are dictatorial and says, "I don't think you can legislate clean air and clean water." He says he wants to work with industry for flexible, voluntary solutions. But at some point the rules must be enforced. The truth is, we have legislated clean air and water for three decades in this nation and it has worked quite well.

Just about every political candidate declares himself, in some way, a friend of the environment. Gore has been a better friend than Bush and has the record to show it. In the long run, Gore's programs could give the nation a cleaner environment.

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