Finding a Balance

New EPA Administrator Seeks Cleaner Environment With Strong Economy

Posted April 21, 2004 at 10:10am

When President Bush plucked Mike Leavitt from his post as Utah governor to become the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, it marked a dramatic change from the leadership of Christine Todd Whitman. Eyed suspiciously by environmentalists, Leavitt brought a ready-made philosophy to the post. Dubbed “Enlibra” from the Latin word for “moving toward balance,” Leavitt touts the approach as favoring collaboration among competing interests over confrontation. With a 500-day plan for addressing environmental concerns being put into place, he joined Roll Call’s Morton M. Kondracke to assess the administration’s performance.

ROLL CALL EXECUTIVE EDITOR MORTON M. KONDRACKE: The Democrats are accusing President Bush of being the worst environmental president in history. Do you think that the public believes that?

ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY ADMINISTRATOR MIKE LEAVITT: I think that the president’s critics have done all they can to create that impression. It’s not true, and hence there are limits to their capacity to do it. History will show, and I believe the record in this election will show, that this has been among the most productive periods of air quality improvement in the nation’s history. The same can be said for other areas — brownfields have been moved forward, Superfund projects, etc. Much of this is reflected as though it is a partisan thing. This is really more about new thinking and old thinking. The president has put forward a very clear charge to me, and that is, he wants the air clean, the water purified and the land protected, but he wants to do it in a way that will maintain economic competitiveness. Given that as the criteria, we will see this as a very successful environmental term.

ROLL CALL: What is the philosophical difference between this administration and the previous administration on how to clean up the environment?

LEAVITT: Well, I’ll just tell you what the president gave me as a charge. In our first Cabinet meeting, I heard the secretary of State report, the secretary of Defense report, and he went around the room. He came to me and he said: “Welcome to the Cabinet. There are four questions I’m going to ask you every time you come. Is the air cleaner? Is the water more pure? Is the land better cared for? And, are we doing it in a way that will protect the economic competitiveness in this nation?”

Now, there have been many who have asked the first three questions. But I believe what makes this presidency distinct is that he is asking all four questions. That requires balance. It requires an acknowledgement that we need to have an environment that continues to improve, but we are doing it at a time where there are new forces at play. In the last 30 years we’ve seen substantial environmental improvement in the country. We’ve got a maturity, an environmental maturity developed. At the same time, we’ve seen economic globalism become a factor. We have factories that are competing with nations who don’t put scrubbers on their coal-fired power plants. We do. We have growers who are growing, who are selling into a commodities market that compete with those who put chemicals and pesticides on their crops and don’t worry what it leaves in the water. We have chip makers who sell into a chip market against those who don’t have to meet those standards. And so, it’s a new dynamic. There will be no environmental progress, in this country or any other, if there is no economic prosperity. There’s no driver of pollution like poverty, and I believe that this president and this administration recognizes that you have to achieve both using technology, using collaborative problem solving, using a focus on results, using market-oriented forces we can accelerate environmental progress and at the same time maintain economic competitiveness to the extent that that is new, it will be a distinguishing difference. But it is a passion that he feels, and he’s been very clear with me that’s part of my charge.

ROLL CALL: So, given a choice on a clean-water or clean-air issue, do you tilt toward protecting the competitiveness of the industry or do you tilt toward cleaning up the environment?

LEAVITT: My charge is to increase the velocity of environmental progress but to do it in a way that will maintain our economic competitiveness. What that means is we have to find better ways if we are using the methods of the last 30 years, we might not be successful at that, because the existing system has been too slow, too expensive and we have to find different ways of doing things.

ROLL CALL: On the issue of global warming, some of the time, you hear the administration sound as though it regards climate change as a real danger to the world. At other times, you hear the administration saying, “Well, this is a subject we’ve got to study some more.” Which is it?

LEAVITT: It’s an issue that has continued to have a growing concern among the public, and it is one that requires that we deal with it in a very deliberate and thoughtful way. That’s the primary purpose that the president has acknowledged: That we cannot allow ourselves to underreact to this, nor can we allow ourselves to overreact to it. The policies that he’s put forward have been aimed to finding a deliberate pathway to make sure we are doing the right thing. The consequences to doing the wrong thing are immediate and they’re severe, and he has made clear that we will respond and we will do it in a deliberate way.

ROLL CALL: The overwhelming evidence that one reads about in the paper from the scientific community is that global warming is occurring, that that the average temperature of the earth is rising and that [carbon dioxide] emissions are the cause of it, and that it’s serious. Now, does the administration accept that consensus or does the administration think that this is still a subject out there for study?

LEAVITT: I have heard the president repeat essentially the words of the National Academy of Sciences that the surface temperature of the earth is rising, that the accumulation of greenhouse gases continues to increase, and that human activity is the cause of a good share of it. From there, there are lots of questions. How long has this been occurring? Is this part of a natural cycle? What should be done to confront the problem? What will the impact of those actions be? I’m going on behalf of the administration to Japan to do a U.S.-initiated project called the Earth Observation Summit. Nearly 50 countries now are forming a network to gather information on a unified basis. That has not existed before. We are going to have the capacity in 10 years to have the pulse of the planet. We’re engaged in a substantial amount of work among the scientific community. I think the president is taking a very deliberate and thoughtful approach to this. We have to acknowledge it might not be the approach that some would take, who would see us moving more rapidly in a particular direction, but it is a thoughtful, deliberate approach, and one I think in the long run will be correct and will protect not only the environment but the economic competitiveness in the nation.

ROLL CALL: Now, your critics say that you have redefined carbon dioxide as not a pollutant during this administration, and that is, in effect, to say that you aren’t going to do anything about the problem of global warming.

LEAVITT: The Clean Air Act requires that periodically, we visit various potential pollutants and conclude if they should be regulated. The EPA made the decision that it would not be, and the same is true of the Congress. Congress has chosen not to regulate carbon as a pollutant. Until that happens, it won’t be.

ROLL CALL: Let me go to the mercury-pollutant problem. There are power plants in the Eastern United States that meet a certain standard of mercury emissions and, as I understand it from talking to some executives of Eastern companies, the standard that this administration has applied to the nation is a much lower standard than they are already required to meet, and the question is why?

LEAVITT: There are a handful, four or five power plants in the Northeast, that have concluded that they will focus on reducing mercury and they have imported a lot of Philippines coal and Indonesian coal that has allowed them to get down to a fairly low point of mercury emissions and we congratulate them but their strategy is simply undeployable within 1,200 power plants all across the country. They would not have the option of being able to import that coal, they would not have the option of being able to use the atmospheric conditions that they have. So what we are looking for is a standard that can be applied all the way across the country.

ROLL CALL: Now as I understand it, allegedly, the standard that you’ve set, or you are in the process of setting, would allow five times the emissions of mercury over the decade as was contemplated by the Clean Air Act. Is that accurate?

LEAVITT: There are a lot of fiction that have draped over this discussion and I’ll probably have to clear them up. The first fiction is that the EPA doesn’t see mercury as a toxin. That’s just not true, we see it as a toxin and we are prepared to regulate it as a toxin. The second is somehow we are stepping back from a commitment to regulate mercury. The fact is it has never been regulated in power plants before, ever. It’s impossible to step back from a commitment that’s hasn’t been made before we are making it for the first time. The previous administration choose to miss the deadlines to declare whether it was a pollutant or not until 10 days before they went out of office and left it for the next administrator, which happens to be me.

On Dec. 15, I made a proposed rule that would reduce mercury by 70 percent. Another fiction is that the technology exists for us to reduce it by 90 percent by 2007. That simply cannot be substantiated by fact. It does not exist. Now there are technologies that exist to reduce mercury in municipal waste-burning plants but not in coal-fired power plants. We are optimistic that they will but it can’t be deployed by our estimation by late 2009 or 2010. So the mercury [issue], I guess, is another fiction that’s out there that at some point previously the EPA said it could be done by 90 percent. That’s simple not true. So this is just one of those places where someone I suppose believing it was true said it. Major newspapers wrote it, other people followed their lead and quoted it as fact, and it’s just not. All of those things are fictions.

ROLL CALL: Is it true that the number of criminal cases filed by the EPA against polluters during the Bush administration is down by 40 percent below the Clinton record?

LEAVITT: I don’t believe it is, I’d have to get the right figures for you, but we have a very clear philosophy on enforcement. It’s an indispensable part of what goes into a regulatory agency. But our mission is to get compliance. And we use enforcement when we think it’s a smart way. We go after environmental outcomes, we have limited resources, so we deploy them in a way that will get the greatest impact. If you were the department of public safety and you were in charge of the highway patrol, you’d measure your success by how many deaths there were on the highway. You wouldn’t measure your success by how many speeding tickets you issued.

ROLL CALL: What’s happening to your budget and the overall environmental budget of the administration?

LEAVITT: Well, the president proposed substantially more money this year than he proposed last year.

ROLL CALL: Percent increase of what?

LEAVITT: 1.7 percent I think was the percentage increase over the president’s previous proposal. … The Congress major portions of it and then added several hundred million dollars more for projects in their own districts. Those who imply that the president proposed less are taking the combined budget of the earmarks that they made plus his proposal and then subtracting, or comparing it to, his proposal this year. His proposal this year is 1.7 percent more than it was last year.

ROLL CALL: Now there are a bunch of charges that have been made about global warming, about mercury etc., etc., that these are political decisions that are made by political appointees and overriding the opinions of professional staff within the EPA and some of them have gone public with allegations of this kind. What do you say about that?

LEAVITT: There’s really nothing new about this problem, there’s lots of disagreement within the scientific community. Our propose is to use science and use peer-review science and to do the best job we can in making policy decisions based on it. The administration’s critics have made that charge, but I would say that previous administrations have dealt with the same dynamic and future ones will as well.

ROLL CALL: When you came into office you set out a 500-day plan. I don’t know how many days you are into your plan now, but how are you doing?

LEAVITT: Well, I would like to have a 500-day plan that has a 5,000-day prospective. It included a substantial amount of work in cleaning the air. The primary use of my time right now is in preparing to implement what will be the most productive period of air-quality enhancement in this nation’s — or one of the most productive in this nation’s history.

You’ve heard of the Clean Air Act, you’ve heard of the clean air amendments we’re going to be promulgating the clean air rules of 2004. Nothing like this has happened for over 10 years, so it’s a moment that will require a substantial amount of my time. But it has been a remarkable experience after having served as governor for 11 years. I loved being governor. I understood the job, I understood the nature of the problem and it’s been rather renewing to me to have a new set of problems, I wouldn’t want to pay the tuition on the education I’ve been receiving.

ROLL CALL: OK, final question, who is responsible for lead in D.C.’s drinking water? The EPA or the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority?

LEAVITT: It’s the responsibility of the Water and Sewer Authority to build and maintain a system that provides safe drinking water. It’s the responsibility of the EPA in most states to assure that the state is overseeing it, and in the District of Columbia we have that responsibility here. The primary responsibility belongs to the water district, but we do have a responsibility to make certain that it is done. There will be a lot learned I think from the experience on lead. We’re working now to make sure that what is learned can be disseminated among other areas. So there is plenty of responsibility to go around.

ROLL CALL: So, do you think that the EPA efficiently oversaw the Water and Sewer Authority?

LEAVITT: I think there are things that could have been done better and things that should have been done faster, but what’s important now is that we are moving aggressively to assure that the residents of Washington, D.C., have clean, safe drinking water.