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Money for Mars, but None for Earth

Updated: Oct 4, 2022

In 1990, George H. W. Bush signed an amendment of the Clean Air Act, expanding the government’s power to control acid rain and regulate toxic pollutants. Voters who hoped that his son, George W. Bush, would follow in his father’s footsteps found only disappointment, as the younger Bush undid decades of environmental progress by withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol and cutting funding for the EPA, while increasing funding for NASA.

The Texas Oil Man

George W. Bush began his career in the Texas oilfields, where he founded Arbusto Energy (Arbusto is Spanish for bush) and soon sold the firm to a larger oil company. The connections that he made in his time in the industry didn’t go to waste, as Bush was easily able to raise large amounts of money from his old friends in the oil business when he set his sights on the presidency. Bush raised $1.54 million from the oil and gas industry, 15 times more than his opponent Al Gore, who in contrast was already a staunch supporter of environmental protection policies even before the 2000 election. 25 of Bush’s largest donors had connections to the fossil-fuel industry, including executives from Enron, Koch Industries, and Exxon Mobil. When Bush narrowly won the presidency, those executives held him to the unspoken agreement to reward their businesses.

Flipping the Bird

Bush set the tone for his environmental policies early in his presidency, when he announced that the United States would not implement the Kyoto Protocol, a 1997 agreement supported by Bill Clinton that requires nations to reduce their carbon emissions. Although Bush’s EPA director would later compare the decision to pull out of Kyoto to “flipping the bird to the rest of the world”, Bush justified the decision on the grounds that it would be good for the economy. Unfortunately, this was merely one part of a long pattern of sensible environmental progress being sacrificed for the economy. Subsequent presidents have made similar arguments in order to justify withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement. Bush also took aim at his own father’s environmental legacy by proposing an amendment to the Clean Air Act called Clear Skies, which called for restrictions to sulfur dioxide, nitrous gases and mercury emissions. Despite the encouraging-sounding name of the proposal, critics were quick to note that that Clear Skies did not restrict CO2 emissions, which makes up over 75% of the green house gases in our atmosphere and would actually make it easier for companies to pollute.

Bush’s Budget Priorities

Bush’s assault on the environmental legacies of his father and President Clinton continued well into his second term as he funneled funding into space exploration and research on distant planets rather than ensuring the protection of the planet we already have. In 2007, when Bush presented his annual budget to congress, his proposed increasing funding for NASA by over $1 billion, most of which was to be directed toward manned space flight ($345 million were set aside to conduct research on Mars). Back on earth, Bush’s budget proposed cuts to the EPA. It is important to keep in mind that presidents don’t get everything they want in the final budget that congress approves, and this is especially true when congress is controlled by the opposition party, as it was in 2007. In 2007 however, the Democratic congress obliged Bush, and agreed to slash the EPA's budget by more than $250 million. NASA got an increase of over $700 million.

A Parting Kick

In December of 2008, Bush was nearing the end of his presidency, but he didn’t leave before approving several last-minute rules favoring the oil, gas, and coal-mining industries. While private companies and countless other countries spent the eight years of Bush’s presidency racing to build the green technology of the future, Bush committed the U. S. to empowering the polluting industries of the past. Perhaps the planet (and the country) would have been better off if there was more money for the earth and a little less for Mars.

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