Gov. Christine Todd Whitman stepped down as head of the Environmental Protection Agency May 21, praising President Bush for his commitment to “innovative, effective” environmental policies in a farewell note.
But rumor has it that Whitman may have finally had enough of the stranglehold that the White House and its allies in the energy lobby have placed on the EPA. The White House has scheduled a meeting for later this month to decide how much further it will go to weaken Clean Air laws that apply to power plants and refineries. The EPA has proposed rules that would allow these industries to upgrade old units and increase emissions without installing modern pollution controls.
Perhaps Whitman hoped to use her influence to restrain these rollbacks before this proposal became final. But she is a staunch Republican, a team player in an administration that values loyalty above all else, and therefore she’s unlikely to publicly break with the president.
In truth, Mrs. Whitman bears responsibility for some of the more outrageous decisions made at the EPA. Yes, she can point to some significant accomplishments, such as the decision to preserve the Clinton administration’s proposed restrictions on diesel exhaust. But she must also be remembered for publicly abandoning her support for carbon dioxide controls to curb global warming, relaxing restrictions on pollution from factory farms, and making it easier for some of the biggest, dirtiest air polluters to find loopholes in the Clean Air Act.
More than three years ago, the U.S. EPA and the Justice Department filed lawsuits alleging that powerful utilities like the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Southern Company and American Electric Power were rebuilding old coal-fired power plants and increasing emissions without installing pollution controls. The stakes were high, since coal-fired power plants emit two out of every three tons of sulfur dioxide in the United States and create fine particle pollution, estimated by the EPA to contribute to about 20,000 premature deaths a year.
When the Bush administration took office, the energy lobby wasted little time to expand existing loopholes until they effectively eliminated the law. These rollbacks were pushed by a determined cadre of staff within the White House, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Energy Department. If Whitman disagreed with these changes, she was apparently powerless to stop them.
In the last two years, important EPA decisions seemed increasingly driven by forces outside the agency, degrading its reputation for integrity and independence. As a result, it currently markets environmental policies that its own staff opposes, stonewalls inquiries from skeptics in Congress and in the media and, at times, functions like an extension of the White House’s public relations machine.
If the White House and OMB are going to call the shots on the most important EPA decisions, why bother installing an EPA director?
Perhaps the administration will take this opportunity to shift course, appoint a new EPA chief with a proven environmental record and let the new appointee do his or her job without constant interference from the energy industry and other special interests.
Regardless of the new nominee, the vacancy offers the opportunity for the public to debate an important question: Do we want a government agency, funded with our dollars and entrusted with the task of protecting our health and the natural environment, to be just another cog in the White House’s political machine?
Sadly, the answer to that question at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is probably yes. If so, then the president should end the pretense and nominate Dick Cheney to run the Environmental Protection Agency.
Eric V. Schaeffer is director of the Environmental Integrity Project and former chief of EPA civil enforcement. This article originally appeared at www.TomPaine.com.