WASHINGTON -- President Bush responded forcefully Thursday to critics of his environmental policies, declaring that America's energy and economic concerns must take priority over global concerns.
"I will explain as clearly as I can today and every other chance I get, that we will not do anything that harms our economy. Because first things first are the people who live in America. That's my priority," Bush said. "I'm worried about the economy. I'm worried about the lack of an energy policy. I'm worried about rolling blackouts in California."
Bush spoke at his second White House news conference, just moments before meeting with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
Schroeder has been at the front of a wave of criticism in Europe over Bush's decision to withdraw from a treaty that requires the largest industrialized nations to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases that many scientists believe contribute to global warming.
The president's statements were the most direct description yet of his thinking on conflicts at the intersection of the environment, the economy and energy.
In the first two months of the Bush administration, environmentalists have been dismayed by the speed and sweep of the president's actions. He overturned a Clinton administration ruling that would have lowered the amount of arsenic in drinking water, and he declared that the United States would withdraw from the global warming treaty.
His policy veers sharply from that of the Clinton administration. Under the tutelage of Vice President Al Gore, President Clinton generally adhered to the idea, supported by environmental groups, that policies that protect the environment need not come at a high cost if they take advantage of technological advances.
Bush said the decision on arsenic in drinking water was part of an administration-wide review of the former president's last-minute rulings. He said there had been no change in the level of arsenic permitted in drinking water since the 1940s, until Clinton acted on Jan. 17, three days before leaving office.
"At the very last minute, my predecessor made a decision, and we pulled back his decision so that we can make a decision based upon sound science and what's realistic," Bush said.
Ten days ago, Christie Whitman, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, announced that the Clinton rule was being rescinded, just before it would have taken effect. Current regulations allow tap water to contain arsenic at levels of 50 parts per billion. The Clinton administration rule lowered that level to 10 parts per billion, the same standard adopted by the World Health Organization and the European Union.
Bush, however, left the door open for a future decrease by his administration, saying "there will be a reduction in the acceptable amount of arsenic per billion after the review in the EPA."
The National Academy of Sciences reported in 1999 that arsenic, which occurs naturally in drinking water, can cause bladder, lung and skin cancer, and may cause kidney and liver cancer.
A week before the arsenic decision was announced, Bush said he would not regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, a reversal of a campaign position. Under the treaty negotiated in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997, the United States agreed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions below 1990 levels and trim them by about one-third by 2012.
In the news conference, Bush returned to his oft-stated goal of opening the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to exploration for natural gas.
"We've got enough gas to be able to help reduce greenhouse emissions in the country," he said.
Seeming to disagree with those who portray the distant northern refuge as a prime example of pristine beauty, he added: "I would urge you all to travel up there and take a look at it....and you can make the determination as to how beautiful that country is."
If his Alaskan effort is turned down, he suggested turning to Canada, because "there's a lot of other areas we can explore."
"It doesn't matter to me....where the gas comes from, in the long run, jut so long as we get gas moving into the country, so long as we increase supply of natural gas," he said.
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