Clinton’s Environmental Policy

Like so much of his legacy, former President Bill Clinton’s environmental policy has received little examination despite the fact that it consisted largely of a series of defeats for the environmental and progressive movements.

“Across the board, setbacks for the greens came at a dizzying pace during the Clinton administration… Tax breaks were doled out to oil companies drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. The Department of Agriculture okayed a plan to increase logging in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, the nation’s largest temperate rainforest. The Interior Department, under orders from the White House, put the brakes on a proposal to outlaw the most grotesque form of strip mining, the aptly-named mountaintop-removal method. With Gore doing much of the lobbying, the administration pushed through Congress a bill that repealed the ban on the import of tuna caught with nets that also killed dolphins. The collapse was rapid enough to distress so centrist an environmental leader as the National Wildlife Federation’s Jay Hair, who likened the experience of dealing with the Clinton-Gore administration to ‘date rape.'”

– Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair in Al Gore: A User’s Manual

photo of logging

In advance of former president Bill Clinton’s appearance in Grand Rapids on Monday, we have looked at various aspects of the Clinton legacy–NAFTA, his genocidal Iraq policy, welfare reform, and media policy–which are largely forgotten and/or ignored by progressive movements and the country as a whole. All too often, we hear praise of the Clinton administration despite the fact that Bill Clinton’s centrist policies were often handouts to his corporate backers. No doubt, part of this failure lies with the media, which has failed to investigate Clinton’s legacy. There have been no stories exploring Clinton’s policies in the local media since it was announced that he was coming to Grand Rapids, with stories either simply saying that he is coming, or more recently, discussing how much he has been paid for similar speaking engagements.

The environment is another issue on which President Clinton’s policies were far from progressive. Despite the support of much of the mainstream environmental movement during his administration who hoped for a shift following the twelve years of the Reagan and Bush administrations, the Clinton administration repeatedly disappointed, frustrated, and betrayed supporters in the environmental movement. Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair argue that Clinton administration, particularly Vice President Al Gore, played a key role in neutralizing the environmental movement by bringing them “in to the fold.” Gore met once a month with “the Gang of Ten” executives of the ten largest environmental groups and more than thirty administration posts were filled by executives and staffers at the major environmental organizations. However, despite being granted considerably more access than they had during the Reagan and Bush administrations, environmentalists were rarely heard and were instead expected to play dutifully along with Clinton’s policies.

Almost immediately, the administration broke its first promise on the environment. On July 19, 1992, Vice President Al Gore delivered a campaign speech on the environment criticizing the Bush administration’s plans to approve a permit for the WTI hazardous waste incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio. The incinerator, located 350 feet from the nearest house and only a few hundred yards from an elementary school, was seeking to burn 70,000 tons of hazardous waste per year. In that speech, Gore promised that “a Clinton-Gore Administration is going to give you an environmental presidency to deal with these problems.” After being elected, Gore again promised residents that the Clinton administration would deal with the issue, saying “the administration will not issue the plant a test burn permit until all questions concerning compliance with the plant have been answered.” However, this never happened and the EPA granted a test burn permit, and when the tests failed, the permit was still awarded. Gore has tried to claim that the administration’s hands were tied by the Bush Administration who promised the permit. According to Jeffery St. Clair and Alexander Cockburn, one of Gore’s environmental aides met with Bush’s EPA director and told the Bush administration to start the process of granting the permit. Similarly, a 1994 report from the General Accounting Office said that there were numerous grounds on which the plant could have been shut down. Also worth noting is the fact that the construction of the incinerator was partially underwritten by Arkansas investment banker Jackson Stephens, a major financial supporter of the Clinton-Gore campaign. Stephens company was represented by Webb Hubbell, who was a part of Clinton’s Justice Department.

This was far from an isolated incident and another campaign promise on the environment was quickly broken by the Clinton-Gore administration. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, federal judge William Dwyer sided with environmentalists in ruling that Forest Service logging in ancient forests in the Pacific Northwest was driving the spotted owl to extinction. In 1991, Dwyer issued an injunction halting new timber sales in spotted owl habitats. When Clinton and Gore came to the Pacific Northwest on the eve of the 1992 election, they promised to “end the standoff” over the fate of the forests. Following the injunction, timber sales had fallen from 20 million board feet per year in 1982 to 2 million board feet in 1993. However, the Clinton administration turned its attention to removing the injunction. To this end, it organized an April 1993 Forest Summit bringing together environmentalists and corporate executives to “solve” the problem. Nothing concrete came out of the Summit, but the Clinton administration continued to claim that it sympathized with the environmental concerns. Clinton had a team of scientists draft eight options for the forests, but none of them suited his needs. A ninth option–subsequently referred to as “Option 9”–reduced the amount of logging allowed during the Reagan years, despite failing to set aside any permanently protected old-growth forest preserves and permitted clear-cutting to continue in both the spotted owl habitat and some of the most ancient forests in the region. An environmental analysis developed along with the plan said it placed “hundreds of species at increased risk of extinction,” according to Jeffrey St. Clair in his book Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green To Me. After heavy lobbying and threats from the Clinton administration, the large environmental groups signed onto the deal.

Other Clinton era policies threatened forests and permitted logging in old-growth areas. The Clinton administration approved the biggest timber sale in recent years by the Forest Service, the Prince of Whales timber sale on the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. The plan allowed the clear-cutting of thousands of old-growth trees and the construction of 100 miles of roads in a previously roadless region. The “salvage logging rider” attached to a 1995 spending bill signed by Clinton opened the way for the logging of millions of acres of National Forest land while exempting the sales from environmental laws and judicial review for two years. Brent Blackwelder of Friends of the Earth said “the salvage rider was arguably the worst single piece of public lands legislation ever signed into law.”

According to journalist Jeffrey St. Clair, the Clinton administration used Vice President Al Gore and his “green credentials”–earned through his statements on global warming and longstanding friendships with prominent environmentalists–to “sell” the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to the environmental movement. NAFTA was one of the most unpopular pieces of legislation from Clinton’s administration and was ultimately one of the most harmful to working people and the environment in the United States and Mexico. Rather than address inadequate environmental protections in NAFTA, Clinton had Gore lobby top-ranking environmentalists to support the trade agreement. Gore relied on longtime friend Jay Hair of the National Wildlife Federation who used his role as leader of the “Gang of Ten”–the ten largest environmental groups–to push for NAFTA. Rather than focus on the relatively meaningless environmental protections in NAFTA, Hair told the other organizations that an endorsement of NAFTA would mean support for environmental reforms in the United States. The more conservative and policy-oriented groups endorsed the agreement, including the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy, Conservation Foundation, and the National Audubon Society. The Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth were aggressively attacked by Hair for opposing the agreement, although as seen in previous paragraphs, the Clinton administration did little for the environment despite the support of the environmental movement.

Author: mediamouse

Grand Rapids independent media //