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Three EPA Chiefs In Eight Years: Two Governors And A Bureaucrat

by Cheryl Hogue
December 22, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 51

Credit: Cheryl Hogue/C&EN
Credit: Cheryl Hogue/C&EN

During his eight years in office, President George W. Bush broke new ground in his selection of administrators for the Environmental Protection Agency. His choice of a sitting governor and, later, a career EPA official were firsts and led to mixed results.

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Three EPA Chiefs In Eight Years: Two Governors And A Bureaucrat

In one of his earliest acts in office, Bush appeared to raise EPA’s political clout: He named a state governor EPA administrator. No president had done so before. But the suggestion that Bush was boosting the status of EPA soon faded away.

Bush’s pick of then-New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, who had a moderate record on the environment, met with little criticism from Congress, industry, or environmental groups. As EPA chief, she embraced Bush’s 2000 campaign promise to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and spoke out on the need to address global warming. But Whitman found herself in an awkward position when Bush reneged on his campaign pledge and announced that mandatory CO2 controls were unnecessary.

Whitman left EPA in 2003, just before the agency issued a rule that made it easier for chemical companies, refineries, and power plants to upgrade or expand older facilities without installing new air pollution equipment. In 2006, a federal appeals court tossed out the regulation, saying the Clean Air Act plainly requires pollution control equipment in the wake of “any physical change” that increases emissions.

Whitman knew that rule was “a turkey from the get-go, an absolute giveaway to the power industry” and left EPA so she did not have to sign the regulation, says Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, an environmental group. The job of signing it fell to Marianne L. Horinko, who served as acting administrator for four months before also leaving the agency.

Credit: Stephen Delaney/EPA
Credit: Stephen Delaney/EPA

In late 2003, Bush tapped another sitting state chief executive, then-Gov. Michael O. Leavitt of Utah, to be EPA administrator. Leavitt’s EPA term was short, but he oversaw the development—although not the finalization—of a controversial rule to control mercury emissions from power plants through a cap-and-trade program. After the 2004 election, Leavitt left EPA to become secretary of Health & Human Services.

For his third EPA administrator, Bush took a different approach. In another presidential first, he selected an agency chief from the ranks of EPA career managers. Stephen L. Johnson, a 27-year veteran who formerly headed EPA’s Office of Prevention, Pesticides & Toxic Substances, has been at the agency’s helm since 2005. Johnson is extremely loyal&mdsah;some say a “yes-man”—to the Bush White House.

Johnson cemented this reputation as a Bush loyalist at the end of 2007, when he denied a request by California to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from new cars and trucks sold in the state.

After studying the scientific and legal arguments around the issues, Johnson initially planned to grant at least part of California’s request, according to former EPA official Jason Burnett. But after consulting with the White House, Johnson reversed his decision, Burnett has told congressional committees. This prompted four senators to take the unusual step of calling for the EPA administrator’s resignation and requesting the attorney general to investigate whether Johnson lied to Congress about the incident (C&EN, Aug. 4, page 30).

Public health activists particularly criticize Johnson for ignoring the agency’s science advisers and staff scientists and not tightening the national clean air standard for particulates. The latter move, they say, will sicken and hasten the death of millions of Americans.

On the other hand, Johnson has tightened health-based air quality standards for lead and ozone.

Although many top political appointees leave their posts before the end of a president’s administration, Johnson has indicated he will stay on the job until mid-January 2009.


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