nyt edit

head: Bush reverses course

sub: Slippery reasoning

erodes sound stand

President Bush’s decision not to regulate emissions of carbon

dioxide, the main global warming gas, does more than betray a

campaign promise. It embarrasses the administrator of his

Environmental Protection Agency, Christie Whitman, angers the

Europeans and creates needless headaches for his secretary of

state, Colin Powell. It also undercuts some of his natural allies

in the energy industry who have been willing to go out on a limb in

favor of a more aggressive strategy.

During a broad policy speech on energy last Sept. 29, Mr. Bush

promised to “establish mandatory reduction targets” for emissions

of four major pollutants, including carbon dioxide, a gas that has

never been regulated under the federal Clean Air Act. In later

remarks, Mr. Bush made quite a point of the fact that he was

calling for mandatory targets, whereas Al Gore was asking for only

voluntary reductions.

Because the burden of regulating carbon emissions would fall most

heavily on coal-burning power plants, the coal producers and some

utilities urged Mr. Bush to change his mind. But his campaign

stance delighted most atmospheric scientists, who believe that

warming over the next century will increase far more than was

originally thought, with potentially devastating consequences to

the natural systems in some regions.

European leaders, persuaded by the gathering evidence on the

causes and dangers of global warming, have been urging the United

States to help put some teeth into the Kyoto Protocol, the draft

agreement to curb greenhouse gases negotiated in 1997. Meanwhile,

the country’s more progressive utilities, like Consolidated Edison

and New Jersey’s Public Service Electric and Gas, are on record as

favoring clear targets and timetables for carbon dioxide as part of

a multipollutant approach that would create a more predictable

regulatory climate and a surer guide to making costly

pollution-control investments.

Indeed, as recently as 10 days ago, Ms. Whitman was describing Mr.

Bush’s campaign promise as if it were already policy. Then came the

president’s reversal. In a letter to four Republican senators who

had criticized the Kyoto agreement, Mr. Bush said he would proceed

with plans for further cuts in sulfur dioxide, which causes acid

rain, and nitrogen oxides, which contribute to smog, as well as

with new regulations on mercury emissions. But carbon dioxide was

off the table, for two main reasons.

One was that the science about global warming was “incomplete,” by

which he meant that it was insufficient as a basis for taking

action. That was an astonishing statement in view of the recent

documentation assembled by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate

Change.

The second was that reducing emissions would require converting

older coal-fired plants to natural gas, which, in turn, could “harm

consumers” by causing a spike in gas prices as California’s

energy crisis has demonstrated.

This was a particularly slippery piece of reasoning. It is true

that switching fuels will be necessary and costly. But by cynically

invoking the California crisis and the specter of sudden price

spikes, Mr. Bush made it sound as if a policy aimed at gradual

reductions in carbon dioxide emissions would have an immediate and

devastating effect on American consumers and the economy.

Despite Mr. Bush’s protestations to the contrary yesterday, one

can conclude only that political considerations carried the day.

His reversal came as a shock to moderate Republicans like Senator

Jim Jeffords of Vermont and Representative Sherwood Boehlert of New

York, who were preparing to join Democrats in a bipartisan effort

to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in power plants over the next

six years. They should push ahead anyway. At the moment, Mr. Bush’s

evolving energy strategy seems to consist largely of finding new

sources of energy without giving any real thought to their global

consequences.

The New York Times