Dirty Tricks on Clean Air
Monday 25 August 2003
Forest fires and industry pose new threats
Clean air and green forests sound a great idea, particularly in the country which is better known as the world's biggest polluter, but US environmentalists are claiming that these fine phrases are not what they seem. On Friday George W Bush visited the Cascade mountains in Oregon, where forest fires are raging, and used the sight of leaping flames to urge support for his "healthy forests" initiative, which is now before congress. The president offered instant expertise on what most people recognise is a very complex issue. "The problem of too much undergrowth creates the conditions for unbelievably hot fires," he explained, and his initiative would cut the red tape which stands in the way of sensible "forest thinning".
Also on Friday, the draft of a new rule to modify an important provision of the Clean Air Act, relating to the installation of anti-pollution devices, was leaked in Washington. The change, said a spokesman for the government's Environmental Protection Agency, would encourage factories and other industrial units "to improve their efficiency, reliability and safety". Critics say instead that it will weaken rather than strengthen the existing requirement for industry, and is the result of two years lobbying by special interests.
Everyone is in favour of protecting the environment and Mr Bush and his business friends claim to be passionately concerned too. However his "healthy forests" initiative should be viewed in the more sceptical light of other moves to allow new logging in roadless and wilderness areas, and to transfer management of some national forests to local interests. Cutting down undergrowth can, in some circumstances, reduce forest fires and controlled programmes of clearance may be useful. But the density of many mature forests which would be targeted by the initiative already provides a natural resistance to fire.
The proposed new rule in the Clean Air Act is of even more dubious value. It will exempt industries which upgrade their plant from air pollution controls if the cost of the equipment - such as a new boiler - is no more than 20% of the cost of the whole new industrial process being installed. The Natural Resources Defence Council which obtained the leaked draft says it will allow more air pollution from 17,000 industries across the country. That is a very dirty trick to play on the environment.