An angry counterattack against federal environmentalists is now being quietly planned by Cabinet-level departments, led by the State Department, with indications of support in the White House itself.
The counterattack seems certain to modify drastically and could kill altogether new regulations proposed by the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) that would make Uncle Sam the environmental policeman of the World - particularly policing nuclear reactors. "Outrageous," one State Department official told us. "These regulations would impose American environmental standards on all our foreign friends and they would end up hating us."
This places President Carter in a peculiar dilemma. While crusading against nuclear proliferation and environmental pollution, he is bound as President by the practicalities of international life. As such, he seems forced to disappoint his environmental constituency.
The proposed regulations were drawn secretly by CEQ plannetrs with apparent help from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmentalist private action group. They would, in effect, require standard environmental-impact statements (to be called "assessments" in the foreign field) for all exported material or technology sold aboard with some help - export licenses or loan guarantees - from the U.S. government.
The real target may be nuclear reactors, a prospect that has infuriated the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). At a closed-door meeting called by CRQ Jan. 6, NRC Assistant General Counsel Carlton Stoiber said there is "no legal justification" for imposing U.S. environmental standards abroad. That brought objections from CEQ Chairman Charles Warren and member Gus Speth, who showed reluctance even to discuss legal justification. But Stoiber insisted tht neither the 1969 National Environmental Protection Act nor its legislative history in congressional debate could justify the new regulations.
At least as upset as NRC and the State Department was Export-Import Bank President John Moore, who warned the Jan. 6 meeting that the proposed regulations would benefit Japanese and West German exporters at the expense of this country. The reason: endless delays and lawsuits against U.S. exports on often specious environmentals grounds would turn impatient foreign buyers away from the United States.
Moore, a former Atlanta lawyer close to Carter, strongly urged White House domestic policy chief Stuart Eizenstat to attend the Jan. 6 session at CEQ. Eizenstat stayed long enough to ask three questions: What is the cost to the federal government of the proposed regulations? What is their legal justifications? To what extent would they impose American standards on foreign governments?
Septh, who took the leading role for CEQ in the acrimonious debate, gave uninformative and "fudged" answers, according to one participant. Eizenstat left the meeting before it ended, but those in position to know say he was unimpressed with CRQ's rationale and has storng reservations about CEQ's ambition to be top cop for global environment.
Speth was legal counsel for the environmentalist NRDC before Carter appointed him to the CEQ. Last year the NRDC brought suit against the Export Import Bank to require it to meet CEQ's domestic standards in all its foreign lending operations.
That suit, while not directly related to CEQ's proposed new regulations, helps to explain why Moore and the Export-Import Bank are so disturbed. The bank has provided more than $20 billion in loans and guarantees for U.S. exports since mid-1974, much of it for nuclear and conventional power facilities and offshore oil drilling. NRDC claims these have impact on the environment.
If the Export-Import bank either loses the NRDC suit (now in U.S. District Court here) or is forced to comply with the proposed CEQ regulations, billions of dollar's worth of exports of U.S. products in the future could go down the drain. Foreign buyers would be forced to wait out endless environmentalinvestigaitons, filing of impact statements and predictable harassment of court actions brought by well-meaning environmentalist groups.
Add to that danger the equally predictable fury of foreign buyers and governments subjected to U.S. environmental investigations on their own soil and the awesome dimension of CEQ's ambitions comes into focus.
But the CEQ has almost certainly overreached itself. Representing an activist constituency that takes a highly negative view of extending U.S. military and political power around the world with U.S. environmental power. And that is an unwanted extension of Potomac power that Jimmy Carter, ardent environmentalist though he is, is having trouble accepting.