How Much More Damage Can They Do? (And Can We Undo It?)

11/20/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Carl Pope Former executive director and chairman, Sierra Club

Last week's superb EPA decision to set science-based air quality standards for lead was clearly a fluke -- not a wholesale declaration of independence by environmental agency leaders against Vice President Cheney and the White House. But there are indications that some tides are shifting as the administration runs out of political clout.

Mind you, not every thing has changed. The Office of Surface Mining announced a new federal rule that would remove the last remaining pretense that it is protecting streams and communities from the ravages of mountaintop mining. The new regulation eliminates the previous requirement of a 100-foot buffer zone surrounding streams -- not for everyone, but just for mining operations, specifying that the rules do not apply to "permanent excess spoil fills, and coal waste disposal facilities."

In its justification, the agency said that its rule would require mining operations to minimize the impact of rock and spoil -- outside of mined areas. So you can't do mountaintop removal if it destroys a stream -- except where you want to do mountaintop removal. So, rivers and streams in places where there is no coal are protected from coal mining -- only the ones in the coal belt are at risk. One can imagine the political lawyers who write this stuff up for the administration conducting internal betting pools for who can come up with the most creative explanations for undoing the clear intent of the law.

But not all of the recent Bush agency decisions have been lawless. In the face of opposition from Alaska Governor and Vice-Presidential nominee Sarah Palin, the Department of the Interior listed beluga whale populations in Cook Inlet as endangered.

And the Bureau of Land Management agreed to postpone further oil and gas leasing on Wyoming's Roan Plateau, a major goal of environmentalists and hunting and fishing enthusiasts in the West.

The fact that the administration may not be able to do much more damage in its remaining months in office is small consolation -- but it suggests that there may be more backbone and integrity in the permanent civil servants of the environmental agencies than one could have hoped -- if Barack Obama wins, he may have more to work with than appeared.

(Incidentally, if you want ammunition for arguing with any friends and colleagues who don't believe the whole "clean coal" campaign that is blanketing the media is, well, carbon-wash, check out this fun website the Sierra Club put together.)