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Bush Defends His Stance on Environment

March 30, 2001|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — President Bush responded forcefully Thursday to critics of his environmental policies, declaring that America's energy and economic concerns must take priority over global concerns.

"I will explain as clearly as I can, today and every other chance I get, that we will not do anything that harms our economy. Because first things first are the people who live in America. That's my priority," Bush said. "I'm worried about the economy. I'm worried about the lack of an energy policy. I'm worried about rolling blackouts in California."

Bush spoke at his second White House news conference, just moments before meeting with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

Schroeder has been at the front of a wave of criticism in Europe about Bush's decision to withdraw from a treaty that requires the largest industrialized nations to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases that many scientists believe contribute to global warming.

The president's statements were the most direct description yet of his thinking concerning conflicts at the intersection of the environment, the economy and energy.

In the first two months of the Bush administration, environmentalists have been dismayed by the speed and sweep of the president's actions. He overturned a Clinton administration ruling that would have lowered the amount of arsenic allowable in drinking water, and he declared that the United States would withdraw from the global warming treaty.

His policy veers sharply from that of the Clinton administration. Under the tutelage of Vice President Al Gore, President Clinton generally adhered to the idea, supported by environmental groups, that policies that protect the environment need not come at a high cost if they take advantage of technological advances.

Bush said the decision about arsenic levels in drinking water was part of an administration-wide review of the former president's last-minute rulings. He said there had been no change in the level of arsenic permitted in drinking water since the 1940s, until Clinton acted Jan. 17, three days before leaving office.

"At the very last minute, my predecessor made a decision, and we pulled back his decision so that we can make a decision based upon sound science and what's realistic," Bush said.

Ten days ago, Christie Whitman, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, announced that the Clinton rule was being rescinded, just before it would have taken effect. Current regulations allow tap water to contain arsenic at levels of 50 parts per billion. The Clinton administration rule lowered that level to 10 ppb, the same standard adopted by the World Health Organization and the European Union.

Bush, however, left the door open for a future decrease by his administration, saying, "There will be a reduction in the acceptable amount of arsenic per billion [parts of water] after the review in the EPA."

The National Academy of Sciences reported in 1999 that arsenic, which occurs naturally in drinking water, can cause bladder, lung and skin cancer, and may cause kidney and liver cancer.

A week before the arsenic decision was announced, Bush said he would not regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, a reversal of a campaign position. Under the treaty negotiated in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997, the United States agreed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions below 1990 levels and trim them by about one-third by 2012.

Bush and Schroeder demonstrated sharp disagreement about how to fight global warming.

"We share a common concern about global climate change," they said in a written statement issued after the White House meeting. But, they added, "we openly note that we differ on the best way to protect the Earth's climate."

The statement said that Germany sees the target reductions of carbon dioxide and other gases as indispensable, and that the United States opposes the targets because the pact exempts less industrialized nations, among them China and India, and "would cause serious harm to the American economy."

They stressed the need to find new technologies and economic incentives to fight global warming.

Talking to reporters in the White House driveway, Schroeder said he and Bush agreed to assign staff members to study how to fight climate change under the Kyoto agreement without the United States joining the campaign "because the president has firmly decided this matter."

As for the atmosphere of the meeting itself, the chancellor said with no apparent irony, "It was really a good climate indeed."

During a second meeting with reporters, after he spent approximately an hour and a half with Schroeder, Bush presented his carbon dioxide decision in the context of the shifting U.S. economy.

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