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  Sierra Magazine
  July/August 2004
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Ways & Means: States Abhor a Vacuum
With Bush AWOL on the environment, the governors step in.
by Carl Pope

It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system," wrote Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in 1932, "that a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country." Far from putting anyone at risk, today the states serve as models for improved environmental health and safety for the nation as a whole.

It was California that demanded clean cars when Washington, D.C., would not; Oregon that initiated the first bottle deposit bill; Vermont, Oregon, and Hawaii that showed how large-scale land-use planning could work; Florida and Colorado that demonstrated how to finance major acquisitions of critical open space; and Montana that wrote environmental protection into its constitution. And now, with the Bush administration abdicating environmental leadership, the states–led by Democrats and Republicans alike–are filling the void.

In Massachusetts, for example, Republican governor Mitt Romney told state agencies to give up their SUVs. He also forcefully rebuked the free ride the Bush administration is giving to polluting old power plants, warning the utilities that "if the choice is between dirty power plants or protecting the health of the people of Massachusetts...I will always come down on the side of public health." More recently, Romney unveiled the first state plan to cut emissions of carbon dioxide, the heat-trapping gas that is one of the causes of global warming.

In Michigan, new Democratic governor Jennifer Granholm worked with Republican legislative leaders to establish a smart-growth commission. She also enforced the state’s first restrictions on water pollution from huge livestock-feeding operations–something the federal government has yet to do in a meaningful way.

Under the leadership of Governor Mike Easley (D), North Carolina adopted one of the strongest bills in the nation to clean up pollution from coal-fired power plants. Easley went on to invoke the Clean Air Act to petition North Carolina’s upwind neighbors to clean up as well–the first time a southern state has done so. (Fourteen states, mostly in the Northeast, have already sued to protect their airspace.) If the EPA grants Easley’s request, 13 neighboring states will have to reduce their emissions of soot and smog-causing compounds. While Washington, D.C., is lowering the bar, North Carolina is raising it.

New Jersey’s new governor, James McGreevey (D), set the state’s own mercury standard when the federal government lagged; he halved the federal government’s allowable level of arsenic in the state’s drinking water; and he appointed a tough new environmental commissioner, Brad Campbell. McGreevey and Campbell are struggling with the state’s powerful building lobby to protect open space and discourage sprawl.

This year New Jersey inaugurated comprehensive storm-water rules that set aside 300,000 acres of buffer zones around 6,000 miles of streams and rivers. The Garden State then joined California, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maine in embracing tougher standards on emissions from cars, including carbon dioxide, the pollutant that the White House refuses to regulate.

In Rhode Island, Governor Don Carcieri (R) began his term by killing a giant proposed "Superport," and then backed a large bond measure to safeguard open space and clean up Narragansett Bay.

Governor Bill Richardson (D), in New Mexico, has thrown every ounce of his influence into the battle to stop oil and gas interests from destroying Otero Mesa with the permission of the Bureau of Land Management.

Finally, in my own state of California, Republican candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger boasted, "I will fight for the environment. Nothing to worry about." Once elected, Governor Schwarzenegger proposed changing the state’s renewable-electricity goal from 20 to 30 percent, and promised a lavish (if unrealistic) system of hydrogen filling stations. He also appointed a strong environmentalist, Terry Tamminen, to head California’s EPA (but then slipped in a timber advocate as his deputy).

The National Governors Association is now providing more environmental leadership than Congress or the Bush administration. While Washington drags its feet on global warming, the governors have outlined a series of strategies states can use to reduce the negative impacts of growth and cut greenhouse-gas emissions. (These include smart planning that combines expanded mass transit, protected open space, and more energy-efficient community design.)

And it was up to the Western Governors’ Association to craft a bipartisan fire strategy that focused on protecting people rather than timber profits. Meanwhile Bush’s "Healthy Forests" plan abandoned community protection in favor of old-growth logging.

There’s still a lot left for the states to do. Romney needs to step up to the plate on transportation and open-space issues; McGreevey to wrestle the developers into responsibility; and Richardson to fully commit to protecting Petroglyph National Monument from his state’s highway lobby. But these governors have shown that progress is possible, even with difficult fiscal situations and divided governments. The key is leadership–something sadly lacking in Washington, D.C.


Carl Pope is the Sierra Club’s executive director. He is the author, with Sierra senior editor Paul Rauber, of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. E-mail carl.pope@sierraclub.org.

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