The President says he was "responding to reality" in backing off carbon dioxide controls.
President Bush faced a torrent of criticism Wednesday when, for the first time, he acknowledged breaking a campaign promise.
Environmentalists charged that Bush had knuckled under to pressure from industry executives by reversing his pledge to reduce carbon dioxide emissions at the nation's power plants. One group called it "a blatant payoff to the polluting industries that funded his campaign."
In his defense, Bush said he was forced to change his mind on emissions because the nation is facing an energy crisis and cracking down on carbon dioxide would only serve to drive up already escalating electricity prices.
"I was responding to reality," Bush said, "and reality is the nation has got a real problem when it comes to energy. We need more sources of energy. We need more power plants."
It was a new experience for the president to be berated for betraying a promise. Up until now, he has won widespread praise from Democrats and Republicans alike for his constancy and commitment to the platform on which he campaigned.
But in truth, the environmental community was never allied with Bush. And so, except for his claim to being a man of his word, Bush probably lost little by flip-flopping. In his campaign, he often said: "A promise made will be a promise kept, should I be fortunate enough to become your president."
Industry officials, meanwhile, praised Bush for his decision. The electric power industry has been pleading with the White House not to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, which scientists think contribute to global warming.
In Juno Beach, Patricia Davis, spokeswoman for Florida Power & Light, said a new carbon dioxide standard was expected to have little, if any impact, on her company's plants. Since 1993, she said, the company has reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 35 percent.
"Our plants meet the standard," Davis said. "We often operate below specified levels."
In Washington, however, officials of many environmental groups held a joint news conference in Lafayette Park across from the White House to protest Bush's decision. On Capitol Hill, Democrats as well as some Republicans, also criticized the president.
"The polluters certainly got what they paid for with President Bush's decision to take a dive on curbing global warming," said Daniel Becker of the Sierra Club. "When energy industry lobbyists banged on the White House door, President Bush made a policy U-turn that will haunt our children."
It was during a speech in Saginaw, Mich., Sept. 29 that Bush pledged to curb carbon dioxide pollution: "We will require all power plants to meet clean air standards in order to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, mercury and carbon dioxide within a reasonable period of time."
His posture at that time had the backing of two prominent Republicans who later became members of his Cabinet, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and EPA Administrator Christie Whitman.
Just a week ago, Whitman was widely quoted as saying that the president intended to keep his pledge to require power plants to limit carbon dioxide emissions as part of a broader package of regulations that also would limit mercury, smog-causing nitrogen oxide and sulfur releases that cause acid rain. This is known as the "four pollutant strategy."
According to the Associated Press, Vice President Dick Cheney has told Republicans that Bush now realizes his campaign position on carbon dioxide was a mistake and that Whitman was simply acting as "a good soldier" when she repeated it recently.
Aides said Bush was unaware last September, when he made his campaign promise, that carbon dioxide had never been classified as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. An early draft of Bush's recent address to Congress reportedly referred to the "four-pollutant" strategy, but that reference did not appear in the final draft.
Bush let his new opinion be known in a letter he sent Tuesday to Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., who was upset by the prospect of a crackdown on carbon dioxide. The letter was not made public until about 7 p.m. _ a technique the White House uses to muffle controversial announcements.
The letter represented an effort by the White House to head off legislation due to be intro-duced later this week by Democrats and three Republican moderates that would require power plants to curtail carbon dioxide by 2007.
One of the sponsors of that bill, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., told reporters the legislation will be offered anyway.
Boehlert rejected Bush's contention that controlling carbon dioxide would lead to higher electricity prices. Under his bill, he said, power companies would have years to deal with the problem and it would not affect current electricity prices.
Bush told reporters that he remains committed to reducing pollution, even though he will not regulate carbon dioxide.
"We will work with our utilities to encourage better efficiency, so as to clean up the air," Bush said.
But he insisted that it would defy common sense to move against carbon dioxide at a time of energy shortages.
"We're in an energy crisis now," he said. "We're going to have to recognize, our country has got to recognize, that we need more power plants, that . . . 50 percent of our fuel source for our utilities comes from coal. I'm confident with better efficiencies we'll keep improving our air quality. But this is an administration that will address our problems in a common sense way."