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Energy bill a special-interests triumph

Page 9 of 9 -- Energy lobbyists also persuaded the Bush administration to weaken proposed rules on mercury, a toxin released in the air by coal-fired power plants. The proposed new rules would ease emissions limits and would give the power plants more time to comply, a combination environmentalists say will do little to protect people from mercury contamination in the water and in fish.

The Bush administration's view of the mercury threat is far tamer than that of its predecessor.

When former President Clinton's EPA issued a December 2000 statement announcing that reductions in mercury emissions would be required for the first time ever, the agency described mercury as a "harmful" substance that "has been associated with both neurological and developmental damage in humans. The developing fetus is the most sensitive to mercury's effects, which include damage to nervous system development."

But the Bush administration's EPA has taken a more relaxed view, describing mercury on its website as a "naturally occurring element that is present throughout the environment." While mercury exposure should be "treated seriously," the site says, "health problems caused by mercury depend on how much has entered your body, how long you have been exposed to it, and how your body responds to the mercury."

The energy interests and their supporters in Congress say the provisions come down to a matter of philosophy, not lobbying clout; industry spokesmen say too much regulation puts financial strains on companies and makes it harder for them to update their operations with more environmentally sensitive equipment. But those with access to Congress clearly did well in the package, according to the Globe's analysis of lobbying records, campaign contributions and the legislation.

On the Hill, legislation as complicated as the energy bill tends to be written more by staff, who then may turn to people outside government to help them with legal language, said a Republican senator who asked not to be named. The specialists tend to be lobbyists, citizen advocates say, creating a situation where lobbyists have a heightened influence on lawmaking.

Outside specialists, lobbyists or not, often have expertise that can be valuable. The trouble, some lobbyists and lawmakers say, is that the process tends to favor those who already have close connections to the White House, either by having held a previous job with the administration or attracting attention by raising money for the Bush-Cheney campaign.

Energy industry lobbyists say it's not a matter of payback, but simply a situation where environmentalists are running up against an elected majority that happens to be unsympathetic to their interests. Environmentalists, they say, should be more flexible and recognize they are dealing with an administration that wants to increase energy production.

"I think the environmental groups have marginalized themselves to the point where they don't get to have as much of an impact as they probably should," because they are so focused on attacking Bush, Maisano said. "They're not interested in policy. They're interested in getting the guy."

Environmental lobbyists, for their part, said they bump up against a lot of closed doors when they try to lobby on the Hill. When they do get in to see sympathetic lawmakers, their views end up being suppressed by a Republican majority that wants to see more exploration and development of oil, gas, and nuclear power.

"On the House side, it's positively Orwellian," said Marchant Wentworth, a lobbyist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. "Republican members have told me to my face that they're just not going to confront the chairman on an issue. I've never seen anything like it."

This report was prepared with the assistance of Marc Shechtman of the Globe library and freelance research manager Maud S. Beelman and researchers Kevin Baron and Samiya Edwards. 

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