With sky-high natural gas and oil prices pushing the cost of plastic way up, it's no surprise that perhaps the biggest environmental issue the industry faces in Washington is really about energy: how to pull more oil, gas and coal out of the ground.
More energy production means lower-cost feedstocks, which could mean cheaper resin. While the environment may not rank as one of the top-tier issues with the public in this year's race for the White House, industry officials are watching President Bush and Sen. John Kerry closely for signs of what they would do.
In broad terms, the candidates are environmental opposites.
Kerry, D-Mass., scores one of the lowest ratings from the National Association of Manufacturers and one of the highest all-time ratings from the League of Conservation Voters. Bush is the opposite, earning generally good marks from manufacturing groups but an ``F'' from LCV.
``Clearly the positions the two candidates take on environment and energy are about as far apart as they can be,'' said Mark Whitenton, vice president for resources and environmental policy at the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington. NAM counts natural gas as its top energy-policy priority.
On energy, manufacturing lobbyists say Bush is likely to allow more liquefied natural gas terminals and promote more coal use for electricity. But they fault the president for not pushing to allow more oil and gas drilling off the coast of Florida, where the president's brother Jeb is governor, and in the Rocky Mountains.
``We don't think the Bush administration has gone far enough,'' Whitenton said. ``More courage is needed.''
NAM said Kerry's environmental policies would exacerbate the problem by requiring electric utilities to use cleaner-burning natural gas, but then turn around and limit drilling for more natural gas. Whitenton said Bush is more likely to support projects that could help, but there are no quick legislative fixes either candidate could pursue easily: ``There's not a lot of opportunity for short-term relief.''
Both candidates have said they would diversify energy sources. Kerry has mentioned boosting cleaner coal technologies and renewable energy sources. Bush has said he would drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and promote conservation.
Other industry lobbyists said that even if Bush is re-elected, there's no guarantee of getting any closer to an energy policy the plastic industry likes. Even with Republicans in control of both chambers of Congress, Bush has been unable to muster the political clout to pass his energy bill, largely because of differences in the Senate.
``The short and long of it is: solving the energy problems this country faces is beyond the president,'' said Gene Steadman, head of the Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s energy task force. ``The energy policy in this country is under the control of the Congress.''
There are other areas under the public radar screen on environmental policy that observers say are worth watching:
* Bush has made strong use of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, a small agency in the bowels of government that has the power to reject or rewrite regulations it feels are not cost-effective. Business groups are in favor of the more aggressive OIRA, and say President Clinton used that agency sparingly.
* Environmentalists say Bush weakened enforcement. The Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington-based group founded by a former chief of enforcement at the Environmental Protection Agency, said the Bush administration cut lawsuits against industrial polluters by 75 percent compared with the Clinton administration.
* Kerry talks about tackling health threats from environmental toxins, and his wife, Theresa Heinz Kerry, heads the Heinz Family Foundation, which funds environmental groups. Heinz Kerry was on the board of Environmental Defense from 1987-2002, and has given $2.75 million to ED, including $320,000 in 1998 for a chemical health-testing program, an ED spokesman said. ED has been active in chemical toxicity issues and has partnered with the chemical industry on the High Production Volume testing program. In the 1990s, ED issued reports critical of the state of plastics recycling.
* Kerry has advocated bottle bills to boost recycling, which the plastics and packaging industry have opposed.