Environmental protection offers little to no political premium in Arkansas.
We make money off the land. We farm it, we shave it, we dig into it. Most recently we're intending to get rich by drilling into it sideways for natural gas.
We remain sufficiently starved for jobs that we worry about the economic impact of imposing rules about air quality and water quality on employers.
In his ill-fated first term as governor long ago, Bill Clinton got in trouble across southern Arkansas because he stuck his nose into timber management. In the 1990s, then-Gov. Mike Huckabee ridiculed “environmental wackos” and paid no political price. In 2000, Al Gore couldn't carry Arkansas, and thus lost the presidency, because our state's farmers and small business people feared his famous interest in environmental protection.
So on Friday an assortment of the state's environmental protection advocates came before the state Pollution Control and Ecology Commission — long ridiculed as the Pollution Permission Commission — with what seemed on the surface to be a reasonably simple request. It was to amend the rule that specifically exempts certain emissions from being called contaminants. It was to take carbon dioxide, which scientists plainly call a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming, off the list of exemptions.
In other words, it was to acknowledge what scientists say, which is that carbon dioxide contaminates the air.
The commission turned down the request.
It approved an order prepared by the misnamed Arkansas Environmental Federation, which actually is a business lobby. This order said the proposal was “premature.” It said that Gov. Mike Beebe, who hasn't touched this issue and would surely rather not, has a commission on global warming already at work. It said the commission's requirement that any environmental restriction be accompanied by an economic impact study had not been met.
Think about that for a minute. In Arkansas, our commission supposedly devoted to controlling pollution may not impose a rule to control pollution unless an economic impact study is first made.
Maybe you like that idea; maybe you don't. Either way, could we agree that Arkansas, as a matter of rule-making policy, is officially unwilling to protect the environmental without considering economics, which takes us back to where this column came in?
Now for the record: State officials say they turned down this request not because they want Arkansas to become a carbon emission sanctuary where we value jobs and money over the quality of our air, but instead because of mere logical procedure. To change the definition without first establishing guidelines about how state regulators and affected industries are to proceed was, in the favored vernacular, “putting the cart before the horse.”
Tom Schueck, a steel industry magnate who has enterprises subject to state environmental regulation, is chairman of the Pollution Control and Ecology Commission. He was twice appointed by Huckabee. Schueck told me by phone Monday that it would have caused chaos to change the rule without new regulatory guidelines in place.
But he stressed that he and other commissioners were not defending carbon dioxide emissions. Labeling carbon dioxide a contaminant is “coming, because the scientists say so,” Schueck said.
Here, then, is where we find ourselves: Carbon dioxide, which is said by scientists to cause global warming, remains a noncontaminant of the environment according to official Arkansas regulatory policy. But that's merely a matter of timing and procedure, we are assured.
Our governor, who needs for his own political viability not to offend farmers or business, has a global warming commission in place. It will be interesting to see what that commission reports by November and to see what the governor and Legislature do next year with what it reports.
The issue is whether the science becomes so compelling, and prevailing federal policy so overpowering, that this prevailing Arkansas culture of economics over environment is forced to make grudging concessions.