When William K. Reilly met with George H.W. Bush after his 1988 presidential election win, he had a condition for taking the job as Bush's chief environmental law enforcer.

Reilly wanted an assurance from the president-elect that he would update the nation's main air pollution statute. Last amended in 1977, many in the late 1980s saw the law as woefully outdated in addressing the headline environmental crisis of the day. Acid rain, the product of sulfur oxides and other pollutants pumped into the air by cars and coal-fired power plants, was sterilizing lakes and streams from the Rockies to the Adirondacks.

“I'll do it,” Bush said according to Reilly, who from 1989 to 1993 served as his administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. 

"On the environment, he promised to be the 'environmental president,' " Reilly told The Post in an interview. "He made any number of significant both gestures and beyond gestures —decisions — the first thing which was he proposed the new Clean Air Act."

Two years later, Bush signed into law an amended version of the anti-pollution law. “He was as good as his word,” Reilly said.

Bush died at 94 on Friday in his home in Houston.

The signing of the 1990 Clean Air Act was Bush's biggest contribution to his significant if imperfect environmental legacy. The law is credited for making acid rain an issue largely  of yesteryear. It did so through a market-based mechanism that at the time was experimental but since then has been heralded by economists and environmentalists as enormously effective.

“Thanks to President Bush, we don’t hear much about acid rain these days,” said Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, which worked with the Bush administration to develop the air amendments.

It is also the version of the Clean Air Act still largely on the books. Given the modern-day gridlock in Congress over environmental issues, the law has received no major update in the quarter-century since Bush left office.

Bush campaigned on being an “environmental president.” At the time, many environmentalists saw such a promise from a former oil executive and member of the Reagan administration, which reduced environmental enforcement, as implausible.

Bush vowed there would be “no net loss of wetlands” under his watch. He promised to address another environmental issue --  climate change -- just entering public consciousness at the time as a debilitating heat wave scorched much of the United States in the summer of 1988.

“Those who think we’re powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect are forgetting about the White House effect,” Bush once famously said on the campaign trail.

By the end of his term, though, many environmentalists thought Bush had fallen short in issuing regulations to protect wetlands or passing laws to address climate change. Just a few months into office, the Bush White House even admitted to censoring the congressional testimony of NASA climate scientist James Hansen to emphasize the uncertainly of his predictions of severe storms and droughts to come because of rising temperatures.

The biggest blemish came in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez slammed into a reef in Alaska and disgorged about 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. Critics in Alaska and elsewhere at the time wished the Bush administration got more deeply involved role in the cleanup effort, which was largely left to Exxon. 

Still, on today's highest-profile environmental issue — climate change — Reilly credits the Clean Air Act along with lower prices for natural gas for coal's declining share of the U.S. power market. That fuel is the most carbon-intensive form of electricity generation.

“A large reason why coal is being phased out in the United States is that the Clean Air Act, with its specifications on and adaptation to mercury, sulfur dioxide and NOx, increase the cost of coal-fired power,” Reilly said. 

The Bush administration broke a logjam of resistance in Congress from coal-state lawmakers east of the Mississippi by winning the support of western lawmakers whose constituents stood to benefit from the revisions.

The coal deposits in states such as Wyoming and Montana contain less sulfur than their eastern counterparts. That meant power plants buying western coal could more easily compete in the credit-trading scheme that allows low-emissions plants to sell credits to higher-emissions ones.

“It's not an easy piece of legislation to pass,” said Monica Medina, who as lawyer for Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in the 1990s oversaw the law's implementation. She later was a political appointee at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

“It was complicated and highly technical, a lot of the science involved,” she added. “But he was determined.”

Bush's update to the Clean Air Act not only put in place that inventive “cap-and-trade” program to mitigate acid rain, which later became a model in other countries for addressing greenhouse gas emissions. But it also empowered citizens to seek restitution from polluters in court and the federal government to control for 189 new toxic substances.

“Of all the legislative history of his tenure, what I most and best recall is the central role Bush played in the long and difficult struggle to protect the health of Americans from the harmful effects of polluted air,” George J. Mitchell, Maine Democrat and Senate majority leader during Bush’s presidency, wrote in the Bangor Daily News.

By the EPA's account, the 1990 law had a staggeringly positive benefit in the lives and livelihoods of Americans.  One agency study found passage and enforcement of the law will prevent 17 million lost work days and forestall more than 230,000 premature deaths in 2020 alone.

Upon his death Friday, some in the environmental movement sung the praises of an ex-president whose legislative legacy on environmental issues stands in contrast to that of the current commander-in-chief.

The GOP's shift toward the outright dismissal of climate science over the past three decades was accentuated last month by the release of a major climate report from 13 federal agencies that found increasingly deadly wildfires,  intense hurricanes and other effects of global warming were rocking the United States.

When asked about the report, President Trump pointedly told reporters, “I don't believe it.” Many congressional Republicans followed Trump's suit to brush aside its findings as "alarmism."

So why did the Trump administration approve the release of such a climate report started under Obama? The answer is Bush. A 1990 law he signed, directing the federal government to study the changing climate, mandated its publication.

Republicans "have to acknowledge the significance of climate change and carbon dioxide's contributions to it," Reilly said. "Most of them have not done that."


— Supreme Court snubs environmental challenge to the wall: In a win for the president, the Supreme Court on Monday rejected a challenge from environmental groups on the Trump administration’s authority to build a border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. “The justices declined to hear the groups’ appeal of a ruling by a federal judge in California rejecting their claims that the administration had pursued border wall projects without complying with applicable environmental laws,” the Associated Press reports. The lawsuits from the Center for Biological Diversity, the Animal Legal Defense Fund and Defenders of Wildlife “said construction operations would harm plants, rare wildlife habitats, threatened coastal birds like the snowy plover and California gnatcatcher, and other species such as fairy shrimp and the Quino checkerspot butterfly.”

— “We will end those subsidies”: The White House said it plans to end subsidies for electric vehicles and for renewable energy sources. Economic adviser Larry Kudlow told reporters that such subsidies “will all end in the near future” maybe in 2020 or 2021, Bloomberg News reports, adding, “we want to end, we will end those subsidies and others of the Obama administration." “Kudlow didn’t provide details on what the White House would to do eliminate or change the electric car tax credits, which would require an act of Congress,” per Bloomberg. “Experts doubt the sweetener can be changed by executive order.”


— "A kind of dark realism": “As the 24th U.N. conference on climate change kicks off this week, a steady drumbeat of scientific reports have sounded warnings about current climate trajectories,” The Post’s Steven Mufson reports. He rattles of the recent reports warning in part of the action needed to steer the Earth away from its current path toward disastrous warming, but noting that most actions, at the individual and government level, may not be enough. “If it sounds downbeat, that’s because it is,” Mufson writes. “Climate scientists and policy experts realize that they walk a fine line between jolting consumers and policymakers into action and immobilizing them with paralyzing pessimism about the world’s ability to hit climate targets,” he adds. Yale University professor William Nordhaus, recent Nobel Prize winner for his work on the economics of climate change, has described his view as “a kind of dark realism.”

— "The civil rights movement of our generation": Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) made his climate-forward platform clear during a town hall on climate change on Monday, packing “two rooms of the Hart Senate Office Building for a star-studded” event, HuffPost reports. “Tonight we are dealing with what the scientific community tells us is the great crisis facing our planet and facing humanity,” Sanders said during opening statements. Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), also part of the town hall, and who has already championed climate policies since her election, said climate change “is going to be the Great Society, the moon shot, the civil rights movement of our generation…That is the scale of the ambition that this movement is going to require.”

The context: Sanders “seems bent on making climate change the central issue of a second White House run as his advisers openly speculate about when, not if, he declares his 2020 candidacy,” per HuffPost.

 — If you live in the Washington area: You may have noticed the brisk temperatures and rainy weather that plagued the area in November. “The rainfall was record-breaking,” Matt Rogers writes for The Post. “The 7.57 inches that soaked Washington broke the all-time November record of 7.18 from back in 1877 … The entire eastern half of the United States experienced its coldest November since 2014. In Washington, the average temperature of 46.5 degrees was 3.1 degrees colder than normal and the coldest since 1997′s 46.2 degrees. It was the 58th coldest November of all time.”

This weekend may be stormy, too: “For several days, computer models have flirted with the idea of a winter storm in our region next weekend. Some have even projected significant accumulating snow,” Wes Junker reports for The Post. "However, they have wavered on the storm track and, at the moment, place us right on the edge of where meaningful snow starts and stops.”

Trump's ostensible flip in 2009 mirrored his party and reflects his conversion to a conservative standard-bearer.
Philip Bump

— Qatar says au revoir to OPEC: Qatar announced it will withdraw from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries at the beginning of 2019, amid an ongoing clash with Saudi Arabia. “Qatar framed the surprise decision, which ended nearly six decades of membership in OPEC, as a move to focus the country’s resources on exports of liquefied natural gas,” The Post’s Hamza Shaban reports. “The decision also comes amid a more than year-long feud between Qatar and its neighbors. Led by Saudi Arabia, a coalition of Arab Gulf states broke off relations with Qatar and imposed an economic and travel blockade in June 2017 after accusing Qatar’s government of sponsoring terrorism … Though Qatar’s oil exports of 600,000 barrels a day are tiny compared to that of Saudi Arabia, which produces 11 million barrels per day, Qatar’s exit from OPEC — the first by a Middle Eastern country — underscored the far-reaching consequences of the Persian Gulf feud."

— Shell sets carbon emission reduction goals: Leading up to the climate conference in Poland, Royal Dutch Shell announced that it will set short-term goals to reduce its carbon emissions and will link the targets to executive pay. “Shell said the targets will be set for rolling three- or five-year periods beginning in 2020,” the Associated Press reports. “The company’s long-term climate goals call for reducing the net carbon emissions of the products it sells by 20 percent by 2035 and 50 percent by 2050. CEO Ben van Beurden says the targets were the result of ‘unprecedented collaboration’ with investors and will help position Shell for success as countries around the world work to cut greenhouse gas emissions.”



  • The Environmental Protection Agency holds a presentation on electric vehicle incentives.

Coming Up

  • The Brookings Institution holds a panel discussion on IEA’s Global Gas Security Review on Wednesday.
  • The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission holds a public meeting on Thursday.

— Celebrating miners in the heart of Poland's coal country: While the city hosts U.N. climate talks, miners in the Polish city of Katowice celebrated their patron saint, the Associated Press reports