Environment

Published — December 3, 2003 Updated — September 25, 2018 at 5:39 pm ET

The politics of energy: Coal and Bush’s greenhouse-gas policy

How smart people playing word games came up with Bush’s greenhouse-gas policy

Introduction

WASHINGTON, December 3, 2003 — Two months after his inauguration, President George W. Bush surprised some supporters by changing his position on carbon dioxide emissions. He had pledged during his campaign for the White House to fight for a new law to reduce air pollution from power plants, but abruptly abandoned his pledge once in office. [For a report on how the president changed his views, see “The Politics of Energy: Coal—How a conservative think tank gave Bush the cover he needed to break his carbon dioxide pledge.”] One year later, the administration proposed in its place a voluntary policy that became an inviting target for critics.

The president announced this replacement proposal on February 14, 2002. The White House, in a “draft” list of Bush’s environmental accomplishments circulated in Congress, called the new plan “a realistic, growth-oriented approach to climate change.” A strictly voluntary project, it aims at reducing something called the “greenhouse-gas intensity” of the American economy. Even for some people steeped in the arcane technicalities of the climate issue, this was a new term. Basically, it is a yardstick for measuring the volume of greenhouse gases that a nation emits per unit of economic productivity.

In his proposal, Bush called for reducing U.S. greenhouse-gas intensity by 18 percent from 2002-12. This would compare with a government-projected 14 percent decline in a “business as usual” scenario, according to government estimates. Some independent experts, however, said 18 percent actually was about the same rate already being recorded in the past decade, without the additional effort that Bush’s plan envisions.

One who made this skeptical point was Charles D. Kolstad, a specialist in environmental economics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and is also affiliated with the corporate-funded think tank Resources for the Future. In a paper on the issue, Kolstad also asserted that the Bush voluntary program’s “lack of teeth” meant it was “unlikely to result in much in the way of changed behavior within the U.S. economy.”

Other experts, meanwhile, calculated just what the relationship would be under Bush’s particular proposal. In closely similar estimates, two non-governmental organizations projected that an 18 percent drop in intensity would still mean a continuing increase in U.S. emissions, as economic productivity grows. The Pew Center on Global Climate Change, which has a number of corporate affiliates, estimated the Bush goal would translate into about a 12 percent emissions jump by 2012. The World Resources Institute, an environmentalist-leaning think tank, said the increase would be about 14 percent.

Visiting Europe in July 2001, Bush said the United States, along with countries ratifying the Kyoto accord, shared the “goal of reduction of greenhouse gases.” Even before the actual release of his greenhouse-gas intensity plan several months later, however, the administration signaled that the administration’s voluntary proposal would simply aim to slow the continuing growth in U.S. emissions as an initial step. The White House Council of Economic Advisers declared in the 2002 Economic Report of the President that “the uncertainty surrounding the science of climate change suggests that some modesty is in order. We need to recognize that it makes sense to discuss slowing emission growth before trying to stop and eventually reverse it.”

This key point about Bush’s policy—that it explicitly aimed to slow, but not reverse, growth in greenhouse emissions—was not universally grasped. In a front-page article published months after the proposal’s announcement, USA Today confused actual emissions with greenhouse-gas intensity, reporting that Bush “has called for an 18 % drop in such pollution.”

Environmentalists blasted the new Bush approach as soon as it was unveiled, but criticism was not confined to their camp. Chemical & Engineering News, a publication of the American Chemical Society, a prominent professional organization that has written about global warming and considers it “the mainstream scientific position”, editorialized harshly that Bush’s plan was “a cynical sop to an American public increasingly concerned about the prospects of global climate change. The initiative is billed as a bold step toward addressing climate change, when it is, in fact, a blueprint for doing nothing at all.”

And from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which maintains that global warming is a theory, not a fact, came this withering appraisal, in an article by policy analyst Paul Georgia: Bush had undermined his own rejection of the Kyoto Protocol and “given new life” to the treaty, Georgia wrote. The “only possible explanation” was an attempt “to boost his approval ratings among environmentalists,” but Bush was “ignor(ing) his own natural constituency, not to mention traditionally Democratic coal-mining states that delivered him the presidency because of this very issue.”

Coal-related interests were not unhappy with Bush’s substitute policy, however, as indicated by their own public proclamations while the new proposal was being developed and after it was issued. As the administration weighed its options, some in Congress began to discuss whether to take legislative action on the issue in the void created by Bush’s about-face.

During this period in 2001, there was “an enormous amount of lobbying going on…a three-ring circus,” a National Mining Association official told The New York Times. Some electric utilities, believing CO2 caps to be inevitable, favored some kind of limits right away, but felt they had “been cut out of discussions at the White House,” The Times reported. Power companies favoring such CO2 limits included Louisiana’s Entergy and the Ohio-based Cinergy and AEP (the nation’s single biggest coal-burner).

Across the industry divide were the confident opponents of any limits for carbon dioxide, such as St.-Louis-based Peabody Energy, a leading coal producer. Executive Vice President Frederick Palmer, who had recently joined the company after 15 years heading Western Fuels and its Greening Earth Society, said Peabody had no need to lobby the Bush administration: “We don’t need to be talking to the White House to know what they want. … I understand the importance of fossil fuels to the American people. Dick Cheney understands that. The president understands that.”

Six months later, when Bush announced his new CO2 policy, the National Mining Association, leading lobby group for coal producers, had only praise for the proposal, saying it would allow “the continued use of clean and affordable coal-based electricity.” The president’s new plan appeared to meet the major criteria, including an emphasis on research and development of cleaner technologies, which the NMA had recommended secretly to the Cheney task force.

The Edison Electric Institute, the power industry’s main lobbyist, likewise responded positively to the new Bush plan, calling it “realistic.” Kuhn, the group’s head and former college classmate of the president, said the proposal’s voluntary goal of an 18 percent drop in greenhouse-gas intensity was “ambitious but achievable.”

But one former government official, familiar with development of the emissions intensity concept during the Clinton and Bush administrations, disagreed that Bush’s goal will be particularly demanding. The idea of an 18 percent intensity cut to replace Bush’s abandoned power plant cap “bubbled up” in government discussions as a substitute for the power plant pledge precisely because it is “pretty easy to meet with existing trends and efficiency improvements,” the former official told the Center.

“It’s smart people playing games with words,” this person said. “It’s not really a reduction (in emissions), it’s an improvement in efficiency.”

Experts on the intensity idea say it had been discussed in policy circles before, but was amplified and refined in a 1999 paper by staff members of the World Resources Institute. In it, they discussed the concept as an alternative way to bring developing countries under the Kyoto treaty, because such nations’ unpredictable emission rates and hopes for economic growth made the use of actual emission caps problematical. With Kyoto a dead issue in the Senate, the Clinton EPA began to consider the idea as presented in the WRI paper.

One of the paper’s authors was not pleased by the Bush administration’s later embrace of the intensity concept for the U.S., however.

“It’s important to point out that the underlying rationale doesn’t work for the U.S.,” WRI research analyst Kevin Baumert told the Center. “It’s not a disaster that they adopted the greenhouse-gas intensity approach. What is a disaster and a shame is the numbers they put in it. They’re not ambitious enough.”

The administration, Baumert said, “is basically perverting an idea put forward by constructive environmentalists and supported by the EPA.”

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