SCOTT SIMON, host:
Throughout his term, President George W. Bush has worked to preserve coal's preeminence as the biggest source of electricity, and to increase domestic production of oil and natural gas. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports these priorities translated into a lasting environmental legacy.
ELIZABETH SHOGREN: One of the best places to contemplate the impact of the Bush administration's environmental policies is from Larry Gibson's mountain in southern West Virginia.
Mr. LARRY GIBSON: Let me show you something. If you turn around and look, you see that point over yonder? And this point way over here. They went up like this, like a camel's back.
SHOGREN: Gibson grew up here, and so did many of his ancestors. It used to be that if you stood at the edge of his property, all you'd see was Kayford Mountain.
Mr. GIBSON: You could not see past this mountain because this was the highest.
SHOGREN: It was 3,200 feet high at some points. Now, Gibson is standing at 2,400 feet, looking down.
Mr. GIBSON: And this is here is what hell looks like to me on Earth.
SHOGREN: What used to be a peak is now a massive mining site. A coal company scraped off the top of the mountain to get to coal seams. Across Appalachia, similar operations are flattening mountains and covering up streams. The Bush administration has promoted what is called mountaintop removal mining, and even changed environmental rules when lawsuits threatened to halt the practice. Last summer, President Bush told the West Virginia Coal Association that coal is the most reliable source of electricity.
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President GEORGE W. BUSH: Coal is affordable, and coal is available right here in the United States of America.
Mr. JOE LOVETT (Lawyer, West Virginia): Truly, I think that the Bush administration is responsible for the destruction of one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world.
SHOGREN: Joe Lovett is a West Virginia lawyer who has argued most of the lawsuits to end mountaintop mining.
Mr. LOVETT: And if you fly over the mountains, what you see is a wasteland where once there were the most productive and diverse tempered hardwood forests in the world, mountain streams - those are gone.
Mr. BILL RANEY (Executive Director, West Virginia Coal Association): I don't agree with that.
SHOGREN: Bill Raney is the executive director of the West Virginia Coal Association.
Mr. RANEY: They want everyone to believe that, you know, every mountaintop is going to be mined, and that simply is not true.
SHOGREN: One of the rule changes that bolstered mountaintop mining was signed by Christine Todd Whitman, President Bush's first environmental protection agency chief.
Ms. CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN (Chief, Environmental Protection Agency): Mountaintop mining is, frankly, to my mind, ugly. On the other hand, it is the sole way of earning a living for many, many people down there.
SHOGREN: Whitman says lots of people don't like coal. But other energy options also have downsides. Half of the nation's electricity comes from coal. She says that's why a lot of Bush administration environmental decisions were made to help the mining companies and utilities that make electricity from coal. For instance, President Bush reversed a campaign pledge and decided not to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. He also made it easier for older, coal-fire power plants to avoid installing pollution-control devices.
Ms. WHITMAN: And that was too bad. That was a loss for all of us, frankly.
SHOGREN: Whitman says she couldn't sign off on that one. It's part of why she quit. But she says President Bush's environmental legacy is misunderstood.
Ms. WHITMAN: What you hear is a lot of the negatives, and there were a lot of negatives. But there were also good things that were done, and people tend to forget that - and we shouldn't.
SHOGREN: Whitman points to decisions to slash cancer-causing pollution from diesel trucks and buses, and preserve huge stretches of the Pacific as marine national monuments.
But environmentalists say that's not what people will remember. Marty Hayden of the environmental law group Earthjustice says the president's legacy will be opening treasured landscapes for timber harvests and oil and gas development.
Mr. MARTY HAYDEN: (Legislative Director, Earthjustice): And we're talking about places like the Canyon of the Ancients National Monument in Colorado, areas across the Red Rock region of Utah, and they've leased millions of acres of the polar bear seas right out from under the polar bear.
Mr. MICHAEL OLSEN: (Lawyer, Bracewell & Giuliani LLP): Contrary to what some believe, this is not the administration of just drill, drill, drill at all costs and do nothing else and ignore the environment.
SHOGREN: Lawyer Michael Olsen was an undersecretary of Interior. He says the president's actions are explained by his desire to make America less dependent on foreign oil at a time when competition for limited resources is increasing. And Olsen says whether you're talking about mountaintop mining or drilling for oil offshore, these are tough issues, and they will challenge the next president as well. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.
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