Feint or force?


AT THE London economic summit meeting, George Bush was impressed by the commitment of other leaders to aggressive action on environmental issues -- a commitment that appears to have been considerably stronger than the president's own.

His administration, with the major exception of its support for a new and innovative clean air bill, has not been an active environmental advocate, either at home or abroad.

Yet the U.S., with its uncounted automobiles, its near-universal refrigeration and air-conditioning and its vast accumulations of toxic wastes, is one of the world's great polluters.

During a 45-minute White House meeting with his new Commission on Environmental Quality, the president remarked that he had been surprised by his summit associates' interest in the subject. He specifically mentioned Chancellor Helmut Kohl's concern for preservation of the threatened Brazilian rain forest.

Bush also confessed that he had found himself under pressure from other summit leaders to attend a global environment conference to be held under United Nations auspices at Rio de Janeiro in June 1992.

Whether his experience with other leaders will push him to a more aggressive environmental policy remains to be seen. He has not yet agreed to go to Rio, for example, but is holding open the dates.

Somewhat similarly, it's not clear whether his Environmental Commission, which met for the first time this week, is a feint or will become a force.

Appointing such commissions is a well-known, time-honored tactic by which many presidents have appeared to be doing something about problems they didn't actually intend to tackle. At first glance, the large number of industrialists and businessmen in the new environmental group appears to put it in this "for show" category.

So does Bush's stated hope to use the commission to help develop environmental responses other than "regulatory solutions," at reduced expense.

That sounds suspiciously like an effort to back away from enforcement of environmental regulation, which can be both costly and unpopular with industry and unions.

The Bush White House often has been charged with seeking relief from, rather than firmly enforcing, rules and regulation -- blocking, for example, proposals by the Environmental Protection Agency that municipal incinerators be required to set up recycling programs.

On the other hand, a number of executives named to the commission have taken an active interest in environmental protection -- for example, William D. Ruckelshaus, twice a director of the EPA and now chairman of Browning-Ferris Industries; Allen F. Jacobsen of Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing, which has established a program to stop pollution from its plants; and Frank P. Popoff of Dow Chemical, a leader in the industry's environmental efforts.

The panel also includes prominent environmental advocates like Patrick F. Noonan of the Conservation Fund, Kathryn Fuller of the World Wildlife Fund and Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund.

Some in the environmental community believe, moreover, that the group's formation was engineered by Michael Deland, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, in an effort to strengthen White House policy. Deland also will serve as commission chairman.

Thus it's at least possible that Bush's appointees may push him further than he expects, or wants, to go. At its organizational meeting, for example, Richard A. Clarke, the head of Pacific Gas and Electric Co., proposed that "concrete goals" should be established for the reduction of pollutants in the atmosphere -- carbon dioxide, in particular.

Coming from an executive of the largest utility in the U.S., which would be directly affected by such a goal, this was a strong proposal. If adopted, moreover, a goal of restricting carbon dioxide emissions would be a direct challenge to John Sununu, the White House chief of staff.

High levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are believed to be the major cause of the so-called "greenhouse effect," which results in global warming. Sununu has been highly skeptical of evidence that the earth is heating up, and has used his considerable authority to limit administration action against a problem he has not been willing to acknowledge.

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