Bid To Reverse Bush-Era Environmental Policies

The Obama administration is trying to reverse some of the Bush administration's environmental policies. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department have already begun to make changes in addressing climate change, air and water pollution, endangered species and pesticides.

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Mountaintop mining permits are only one of many Bush administration policies that President Obama's environment team has been rethinking. For eight years, the Bush administration downplayed the threat of climate change and pursued a pro-business strategy on air and water pollution, endangered species and pesticides.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren joins us to talk about a few of the policies the Obama team is redoing.

And Elizabeth, let's start with the policy about climate change. There was a finding sent by the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson, a finding sent to the White House saying that climate change is endangering the American public's health and welfare; a real turnaround from the Bush administration. What are the ramifications of that? What could happen?

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Well, this came from a Supreme Court ruling two years ago. It rejected the Bush administration's argument that the EPA doesn't have the power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Interestingly, arguing against the Bush administration in that case was a Georgetown law professor, Lisa Heinzerling. She's now EPA's top lawyer.

Now, if the EPA goes ahead, as we expect, and says that greenhouse gas emissions are endangering public health, that sets up a requirement that EPA regulate those emissions. Now, the White House has said that that's not their preferred way to go. They want Congress to decide how to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. But if Congress can't manage to do it, which is a possibility, then this gives EPA the power to go ahead.

BLOCK: And what's the response from industry to that?

SHOGREN: Well, industry hates the idea of the EPA going ahead and doing its own regulation. It has all kinds of fears that these regulations would regulate just about every tiny, little business that there is out there. Now, environmentalists say that EPA would not be that aggressive, but we'll have to wait and see.

BLOCK: Now, the Bush administration blocked an effort by California and some other states to cut greenhouse gas pollution from cars. Now, the EPA is reconsidering that. What's expected to happen there?

SHOGREN: Well, environmentalists expect that the EPA will give California the waiver that will allow California and several other states, many other states, to go ahead and regulate greenhouse gas emissions. It's not completely clear yet what the EPA will do. The new chief, Lisa Jackson, did go ahead and re-evaluate this very quickly. But automakers are saying that this is not the time to make their job even harder.

BLOCK: Lisa Jackson has said she's doing a broad review of thousands of Bush administration policies. What other kinds of initiatives might be overturned in this administration?

SHOGREN: Well, there are tons of possibilities. One of the Bush administration policies made it easier for dirty coal-fired power plants not to clean up by putting on pollution controls. That one might be targeted by the new administration. Another gave pesticide companies the right to use human subjects in their testing. That one might be targeted. And there are lots others that deal with whether or not to regulate perchlorate, that's rocket fuel, from drinking water, and whether they would regulate the mercury emissions that come from coal-fired power plants.

BLOCK: It's also - it's not just EPA at work here trying to reverse environmental policies, the Interior Department is involved, as well. What are they doing?

SHOGREN: Well, there are a few things that have happened so far. The new Interior secretary, who is Ken Salazar, cancelled some controversial leases for oil and gas drilling in Utah. Those leases involved parcels that are near some National Parks, like canyon lands and arches. He also decided to go slow on a policy that would increase oil and gas drilling offshore, off of the coast of California, and the East Coast, and the far eastern Gulf of Mexico.

And President Obama himself stepped in and decided that he wanted to block, at least temporarily, a Bush administration policy that would weaken the power that wildlife experts have to prevent government actions that could harm endangered species.

BLOCK: Sounds like a lot of stuff in here that environmentalists would like. Business interests would not like. Any exceptions to that?

SHOGREN: There is an exception that Ken Salazar, the new Interior chief, did affirm a Bush administration policy that takes the gray wolf off the Endangered Species List, both in the Great Lakes States and in the northern Rocky Mountain States, all except for Wyoming. And wildfire advocates were very upset with this decision.

BLOCK: NPR's national environment correspondent, Elizabeth Shogren. Thanks very much.

SHOGREN: Thank you.

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