The Politics Of Vengeance

Many members of the House and Senate say they ran for office out of love--of justice, equality, peace, the American way, etc. James Inhofe says he ran for Congress in 1986 for "vengeance." In a city full of people who pretend to believe that politics should be kinder and gentler, Inhofe is refreshing. He does not even pretend.

When he was a developer--that word gives environmentalists the vapors--he says, "The chief obstacle I had always was the federal government." Spoiling for a fight with that dragon, in 1966 he won a seat in the Oklahoma Legislature and three months later flew to Washington to testify against Lady Bird Johnson's Highway Beautification Act, not because he dislikes beauty, but because under the act Washington "won't give the states dollars they have paid into the Highway Trust Fund unless they jump through certain hoops."

Then there was Inhofe's friend Jimmy Dunn. When Carol Browner, head of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Clinton administration, left office, she said at least she would not have to hear any more about Jimmy Dunn. The owner of a lumber company, he sold used crankcase oil that, through the fault of the person he sold it to, wound up in a Superfund cleanup site. Dunn was fined by the EPA. Vengeance is mine, saith the senator.

Now 69 and not noticeably mellowed as he begins his second full Senate term, he is chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. Environmental lobbyists, who specialize in extravagant warnings about impending apocalypses, at last confront an opponent commensurate with their rhetoric. Wearing a gray suit, black cowboy boots and a look of pugnacious contentment, Inhofe says, "I'm personally the best thing that has happened to the environmental movement for fund-raising."

Wetlands protection? Too often, he says, it involves the unconstitutional taking of property. Global warming? "First, of all, there is no science." Anyway, warming and cooling periods have come and gone. The EPA's science is politics in drag: "They sit there drinking their tea and deciding what America should look like in their eyes and then invent the science to justify it." He favors global cooling of what he considers environmental hysteria that ignores sound science, cost-benefit analysis of regulations and astonishing environmental improvement.

The Clean Air Act precludes considering the costs of ambient-air-quality standards. Inhofe's committee staff says the EPA "consistently" ignores cost-benefit analyses. "At one Superfund site that was mostly cleaned up, the agency spent an additional $9.3 million to meet EPA's stringent cleanup standards. The extra expenditures theoretically meant that children could safely eat dirt for 245 days per year instead of 70." Except no children lived near the site, which was a swamp.

Regarding environmental progress, Inhofe could cite Gregg Easterbrook, author of the 1995 book "A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism." Easterbrook says that "arguably the greatest postwar achievement of the U.S. government and of the policy community is ever cleaner air and water accomplished amidst population and economic growth." Between 1976 and 1997, population increased 25 percent, GDP more than doubled, vehicle-miles traveled rose 125 percent and air quality improved dramatically, partly because new cars emit less than 1 percent as much pollution per mile traveled as 1970 new cars did. During the 1980s Los Angeles County averaged 80 "stage one" ozone alerts annually. It has not had one for more than two years.

On the eve of this week's Earth Day, the EPA announced more stringent restrictions on off-road diesel vehicles (bulldozers, tractors, etc.). The Natural Resources Defense Council called this "the biggest public health step since lead was removed from gasoline more than two decades ago." For this sin of cheerfulness, the NRDC was roundly denounced by other environmental groups. Situation normal.

The environmental movement is resistant to good news, and Inhofe is not in a Rodney King "can't we all just get along?" mood. He also serves on the Armed Services Committee, and sees his campaign for what he calls environmental common sense as a national-security matter. His committee staff says:

At Camp Lejeune the Marines spend more on complying with environmental regulations than on ammunition. On the other coast, because of environmental regulations, only 200 yards of Camp Pendleton's 17 miles of beaches may be used for training for amphibious landings. In the Mojave Desert, Marines train in the daytime out of deference to certain tortoises. Under a court settlement aimed at protecting whales from it is not clear what, the Navy must clear it with the NRDC before Pacific testing of low-frequency sonar used for detecting quiet diesel submarines, such as North Korea's.

Inhofe failed to find the votes to authorize oil and gas exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This will make him feel vengeful. Situation normal.