The stomp of enviro feet leaving Al Gore‘s camp and heading toward consumer advocate Ralph Nader‘s Green Party tent appears to have put quite a fright into the vice president’s operation. The veep is spending valuable time nowadays campaigning in the Pacific Northwest and states like Wisconsin, places he should have locked up by now were it not for Nader.

This weekend, Gore’s lead environmental advisor, Katie McGinty, took aim at two big-time issues that have raised environmental hackles: Occidental Petroleum’s plan to drill for oil on rainforest land in Colombia claimed by the indigenous U’wa tribe, and ongoing disputes about an incinerator in Ohio located near a school.

She couldn’t have chosen a more spin-worthy venue.

Speaking at the annual meeting of the Society of Environmental Journalists, where green gazetteers (yes, Muckraker was there) gather each year to chink glasses and trade war stories, McGinty said on Saturday that Gore had personally contacted the president of Colombia to convey concerns about the plan by the country and Occidental Petroleum to proceed with the drilling. The U’wa have threatened to commit collective suicide if the drilling occurs, and environmentalists have made the issue campaign fodder because the Gore family has strong historic ties to Occidental and the vice president’s mother has about half a million dollars of stock in the company.

McGinty, who used to chair the White House Council on Environmental Quality and now works for the Democratic National Committee, said that Gore had asked Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright to follow up on his concerns over the drilling.

McGinty also dropped the news that an ombudsman appointed by the U.S. EPA to study a hazardous waste incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio, which is about 1,000 feet from an elementary school, would soon be recommending that the plant be shut down for at least six months because his investigation had uncovered irregularities in emissions testing since the plant began operating and because some health risks weren’t addressed before the plant opened.

In his first campaign for vice president in 1992, Gore stumped in Ohio saying he would do his darndest to make sure the plant never opened. Enviros contend that since winning that election, Gore hasn’t lifted a finger on the issue, though the plant is coughing up lead, mercury, dioxin, and other nasties into the air. Gore surrogates have claimed during this year’s campaign that the vice president’s hands were tied after the EPA licensed the plant in the waning days of Bush the Elder’s administration.

Now, with Ohio proving a crucial swing state, McGinty was happy to tell the journalists that Gore was siding with the ombudsman’s recommendations and hoped to see the plant shut down while further testing occurred.

(The EPA since then has said it will conduct more tests but not shut down the plant. Muckraker wonders if the agency will discover that it has the authority to close the plant as the election runs down to the wire.)

Romancing the Greens

McGinty’s pronouncements came during a debate in East Lansing, Mich., with a deckhand from the other major party camp, Christopher DeMuth, president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute and an advisor on the environment to George W. Bush.

While it was clear from her presentation that McGinty has been out pressing flesh for her side, it was equally apparent that DeMuth comes from the world of books and think tanks and is less involved in the campaign. (McGinty said she’d last been in touch with the veep three hours before the debate; DeMuth couldn’t pin down when he’d last spoken to Bush.)

DeMuth walked to the podium, giving the green (how appropriate) sweater wrapped around his shoulders a last cinch at the knot, and proceeded to explain the difference between “romantic environmentalists” and “practical environmentalists.” (You’ve always wondered, right?) Romantic types, like Gore, are “strong and uncompromising philosophical environmentalists,” for whom environment “trumps” all other concerns, he explained. On the other hand, practical folks, like Bush, understand that “negotiation among competing interests” is the best way to reach a cleaner environment and greater social good.

DeMuth did touch on some actual policy issues. For example, he said that the Kyoto climate change treaty is a “dead letter” and that there are more pressing issues to address than climate change, which is a long-term problem that can be tackled in the future. (Does the rest of the world know this, as negotiators from scores of countries prepare to gather in The Hague, Netherlands, to hammer out treaty details?)

McGinty, of course, said Kyoto was very much alive. She repeatedly flamed DeMuth’s standard bearer by saying the Texas governor had been campaigning in the South last week saying the best energy policy for the country would be “drill, drill, drill.”