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Christine Todd Whitman Leaving the EPA

May 21, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: In her two and a half years at the helm of the EPA, Christine Todd Whitman has often been the Bush administration’s most reliable lightning rod as she defended the president’s efforts to alter decades-old environmental policies. Among the notable issues: Global warming.

Less than three months after taking office, President Bush announced he would not regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and he decided not to sign the Kyoto Treaty, an international plan to reduce greenhouse gases.

On water quality, the administration moved to abandon a Clinton-era rule to reduce arsenic in drinking water. Clinton officials had argued permissible levels were too high.

CHARLES FOX, CLINTON EPA OFFICIAL: Virtually all of the science that I’m aware of suggests that arsenic is a very significant threat to public health and that we need to significantly reduce the standard.

GWEN IFILL: But Whitman said the tougher Clinton standards carried unintended consequences.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: Water companies going under, people being forced to drill their own wells, and drinking water that had higher incidence of arsenic than they were getting before — that’s not helping public health, and what we want to do is ensure that we help public health.

GWEN IFILL: The arsenic rule provoked public outcry, and the Clinton standards were reinstated. On public lands: President Bush did overturn another Clinton rule — the ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park, opting to limit their use instead.

On oil exploration: The administration has long viewed Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a potentially rich source of domestic energy. But environmentalists warned about the risks to wildlife. So far, measures to approve drilling in Alaska have failed in Congress.

On nuclear waste: Last year, President Bush approved a plan to store the nation’s nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but environmentalists and Nevada state officials have opposed it, citing safety concerns.

On clean air: The administration has proposed allowing old power plants, most of them in the Midwest, to continue to function without modern pollution controls. Northeastern states complained, saying pollution drifts their way.

RICHARD BLUMENTHAL, CONN. ATTORNEY GENERAL: This study draws direct links between the air pollution in the Midwest that is blown by the prevailing winds to Connecticut– nitrogen oxide, sulfa dioxide causing acid rain, smog– that not only damages our lakes and rivers and trees, but also causes severe respiratory problems in our citizens and very grave health problems.

GWEN IFILL: Nine northeastern states have challenged the Bush rule in court. And on expanded logging: Just yesterday, the House of Representatives approved a plan to increase logging on 20 million acres of federal forests. The president said thinning the woodlands would help prevent devastating wildfires.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: It sets the goal of thinning trees and cleaning out underbrush and restoring the health to 20 million acres. I hope Congress says when we’re successful in the 20 million, we need to get after the 175 million more acres.

GWEN IFILL: Environmentalists, however, say logging companies will only cut down large trees, not the undergrowth which provides fuel for forest fires. In announcing her departure, Whitman said she is not leaving under pressure, but to spend more time with her family.

And in her letter of resignation, she wrote: The EPA has built an enviable record of success that will result in significant improvements for the state of our nation’s treasured environment.

GWEN IFILL: Significant improvement or historic rollbacks? Here to offer an assessment of the Bush environmental record so far are: Lynn Scarlett, the assistant secretary for policy, management, and budget in the U.S. Interior Department; Gregory Wetstone, the director of advocacy for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a not-for-profit environmental organization; and Paul Portney, the president of Resources For the Future, a not-for-profit group that conducts independent research on environmental issues. Lynn Scarlett, what is your overview the Bush administration record so far particularly during Christine Todd Whitman’s tenure?

LYNN SCARLETT: I think we’re doing a tremendous job. The president set forth when he calls a vision of a new environmentalism. And by that he meant let us build a vision based on innovation.

And so he’s put the largest ever amount of resources towards climate change research, for example. We have his new car investment to try and bring new technologies for cleaner cars. It’s a vision based on what Secretary Norton at Interior calls cooperative conservation.

We’re working with some 27,000 landowners to extend a caring hand across the landscape in partnership. I think the proof of the pudding is in the tasting. We’re achieving some tremendous wetlands restoration. We are bringing those forests back to health; they need it. They are overcrowded with thin and spindly trees. We have in southern California where I’m from a terrible insect devastation. We need to get and bring those forests back to health. And that’s what we’re trying to do.

GWEN IFILL: Greg Wetstone cooperative conservation?

GREGORY WETSTONE: I don’t think so. Unfortunately, our take is that the big picture here is an almost daily drumbeat of fundamental weakening changes in landmark environmental programs that have played a huge role in improving our quality of life in this country, reducing pollution, protecting public health, and improving our quality of life, and we see this again and again and again at EPA, at the Department of Interior and across the Bush administration and the federal agencies charged with environmental protection. We have never been confronted with such a fundamental effort to weaken these basic programs that have proven effective and are hugely popular with the American public.

GWEN IFILL: Paul Portney, to listen to these two guests tell us it – the glass is either — it’s not even half full or half empty — it’s either completely full or completely empty. How do you see that?

PAUL PORTNEY: Well, I see some water in the glass, Gwen. I think at the EPA I don’t see absolutely dramatic changes that Greg does from what we have seen in the previous administrations, not just in the Clinton administration but even going back to President George H.W. Bush. I think there’s been a reasonable degree of continuity and EPA type environmental policy.

I think on some of the public land management issues, forestry, wilderness, issues in the West, I think you do see a difference between the policies of the Bush administration and the policies of the preceding administration, so I see reasonable continuity at EPA, bigger changes on some of the western land management issues.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s go through some of these issues, issue by issue. Let’s start with global warming. That was the first thing that caught so many people’s attention when this administration came into office that the decision not to go along with the Kyoto Accord. Paul, was that something that has had reverberations since then?

PAUL PORTNEY: Well, there’s no question that the political ramifications of the president’s decision to turn way from Kyoto have been significant. I think it’s affected the conduct of U.S. foreign policy because this is an issue that’s been — that remains very important in other countries of the world. I think they were disappointed when President Bush signaled that he wouldn’t go along with Kyoto and at least at the time he announced it he didn’t put forward an alternative to it.

So that has been a significant departure and if I had my druthers, I’d like to see the administration begin a gradual program of mandatory restrictions in C02 emissions beginning very gradually and ramping up slowly over the years because I think that this is a problem against which we need to begin to take some protective measures.

GWEN IFILL: Is anything like that on the table, Lynn Scarlett?

LYNN SCARLETT: What we have on the table is the largest budget ever applied to trying to invest in climate change technologies. Remember that we can’t get those emission reductions without changes in technologies, without cleaner cars, cleaner ways of using energy. And we have a $700 million increase in this just year alone. You turn again to the clean car project that the president announced in his budget this year, again tremendous potential payoff in the future.

At interior we’re playing a big role on public lands. A lot of people forget that dimension, tree planting, just in basic tree planting there can be tremendous benefits for climate. We’re working on that effort replanting a lot of wetlands in the southern part of the state, working with our fish and wildlife refuge. There’s a tremendous amount of activity and then partnership with industry, getting them to sign up, register their reductions and commit to reductions.

GWEN IFILL: Greg Wetstone.

GREGORY WETSTONE: Global warming should be what it’s all about. The energies in this administration should be about how we’re going to find a way to move forward in global warming. The rejection by this administration unfortunately went much deeper than this international agreement out of Kyoto. It went to the basic notion of moving forward with policies to reduce U.S. contribution to global warming pollution.

And the technology is there today and ready to be deployed, and all we need is the federal government to show leadership in improving fuel economy from cars, reducing pollution from power plants, which is the complain commitment that George Bush made on the campaign trail and renounced early in his administration that you mentioned in the earlier piece. The technology’s there.

We should be getting started. And this is where our energy should be — not on fighting weakening changes to existing programs, which is where we are, but in how we move forward, and we’d love a chance to work together with this administration and with industry to do that, but we have to see leadership.

GWEN IFILL: On water quality that was another issue that got a lot of attention early on with the rollback, with the proposed rollback of the arsenic rules. Is water purer now that it was two and a half years ago?

GREGORY WETSTONE: I think when we talk about the quality of waters in our rivers and the effectiveness of the Clean Water Act, there is probably no statue more at risk today and I would urge our viewers to check out our Web site at All these changes are documented there on clean water, we are now in the midst of an EPA effort to dramatically narrow which waterways are protected by the Clean Water Act.

Today virtually all the waterways are covered. We’re seeing action on a proposal that would remove 60 percent of the stream miles in this country from protection of the Clean Water Act and 20 percent of the wetlands. Paul mentioned the notion of this is really no different than even than the original Bush administration. If you look at the policies in clean water, it is dramatically different both in the coverage of the act. Wetlands protection was another very important initiative of George Bush the first — completely reversed under this administration.

GWEN IFILL: Let me get Lynn Scarlett to respond.

LYNN SCARLETT: You know, one of the things that we have done over the last 30 years is to often equate the result with a process or a permit, and one of the things we’re trying to do is to shift that and say what really matters is the end outcome. Are we getting the job done? Let us take wetlands, a lot of focus on wetlands regulation, but we went and looked at how much those regulations have actually protected on net over the last 20 years.It’s about 20,000 acres a year over that ten-year period.

By contrast the kinds of things we have done through cooperative conservation, working in partnership with landowners, achieve hundreds of thousands of acres of protection. We think that’s where the future is — partnering with a nation of citizen-stewards and getting this job done and not mistaking a process or a permit for the result. The result is in what happens on the ground.

GWEN IFILL: Paul Portney?

PAUL PORTNEY: Well, Gwen, I think the discussion between Greg and Lynn points out an interesting dilemma in environmental policy, and that is that often these debates are hard to settle because we don’t have very good data about the progress that we’re making or the lack of progress that we’re seeing in some areas.

It’s interesting that a bill has been introduced in Congress by Congressman Ose of California that would both elevate EPA to cabinet status and also create within EPA something called a Bureau of Environmental Statistics that would do the same thing within EPA that the Bureau of Labor Statistics does within the Labor Department or the Bureau of Economic Analysis does within the Commerce Department, which is collect and provide to the public on an annual basis the best information available about trends in air quality, water quality, land use, et cetera

GWEN IFILL: Where does that bill stand now?

PAUL PORTNEY: It’s been introduced. I think that a House subcommittee will hold hearings on this bill in a couple of weeks and I think if we had something like that, we would have a little bit better factual basis to help decide issues like this.

GWEN IFILL: Lynn Scarlett, I want to ask you about exploration issues. One of points that this administration makes is that in order to wean ourselves from dependence on foreign sources of energy, oil in particular, that we need to do more exploring in our own backyard, including say the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, also San Padre Island, which they have opened for more gas drilling. Where does that stand now?

LYNN SCARLETT: You know, this administration has a vision of energy, in meeting our energy needs that is very comprehensive. Over half of the elements in the president’s national energy plan actually are focused on conservation. There’s a large effort also focused on renewable energy; that’s what we’re doing at Interior, investing in geothermal, solar, wind. But part of the picture is also of course tapping those fossil fuels, those traditional sources.

We think we can do that; we think we can do that in a way that yields healthy lands and thriving communities because we have technologies now that can lighten our footprint, enable us to get at that oil but do it in a way that does not disturb the landscape in which that activity is occurring very much.

GWEN IFILL: Greg Wetstone?

GREGORY WETSTONE: I want to come back to the basic question that how do you know if these laws are working and whether these changes are steps backwards? And I think there’s a long history. These laws started out as largely voluntary efforts, calling the states, get started, then we realized we had to have these laws that say what needs to happen in the agencies to carry them out and enforce them.

And what we have seen across the board are agencies reinterpreting the laws to require less and less of polluters, less and less public involvement and environmental investigation with regard to energy development on public lands and less enforcement. And what that does is reduces the credibility of these laws that remain on the books but become less effective.

We move in the direction of say Mexico, which has very tough laws on the books but it doesn’t mean much happens on the ground. And I don’t think you have to look too deep to see this is going to hurt our quality of life in this country and it’s a step backward on the environment.

GWEN IFILL: Administrator Whitman was asked earlier today on another program about criticism from groups like yours, and her response was no matter what we do groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council will always take the opposite tact because it will drive up their membership, gets their membership riled. Your response?

GREGORY WETSTONE: I don’t think that’s true. And in fact when the administrator came forward with a positive action on diesel pollution which was the single bright point in her tenure at EPA, no one was more out front in praising her action than the Natural Resources Defense Council. But we have to look at the broad picture and the broad picture here is a very troubling one. And unfortunately it’s got to be our role to call the public’s attention to what is happening here. And that’s the reason, by the way, we have been winning again and again in court in challenging these actions.

GWEN IFILL: And, Lynn Scarlett, the criticism of course that’s applied to the administration that you took rollbacks and you dress them up with names like the clear skies initiative which when it’s actually according to the environmentalists a rollback in pollution standards. What’s your response to that sort of criticism?

LYNN SCARLETT: I think we actually have some common ground here. Paul Portney mentioned the importance of indicators. We have actually been investing a lot of time and effort and certainly Council of Environmental Quality on building those indicators, participating in getting that information because the end result is what we want to know about.

You know, I think again something Greg said is important to think about. Success does not reside on one — whether one has a permit or has a particular regulation; what matters is what we do on the ground. Again, if you look at our Cooperative Conservation Initiative that we have highlighted at Interior, we have put over a half a billion dollars into cooperative conservation programs.

With that coming is tremendous, tremendous restoration of streams, wetlands, replanting of trees, invasive species, I think is a problem that is out there. We all agree is out there and we’re working hard to mitigate that.

GWEN IFILL: Paul Portney where do you find or see if there exists middle ground in this debate?

PAUL PORTNEY: Well, Gwen, I think there is at least one area in people in the environmental community including Greg and his colleagues at Natural Resources Defense Council and people in the Bush administration have found some common ground and that’s the notion of using cap and trade programs to address pollution.

Once you’ve decided how much a pollutant you can allow, then the idea is to establish a firm cap but then allow the various firms that discharge the pollutant to buy and sell the pollutant and trade amongst themselves so that the reductions get concentrated at the sources that can most inexpensively reduce pollution.

And on an issue like this my colleagues, researchers at Resources for the Future, have worked both with people in the Bush administration and also with Greg’s colleagues at NRDC to fashion binding caps that will really limit emissions and reduce the amount of pollution but do it in a way that allows us to continue to grow the economy and keep both the U.S. economy and the economies of the rest of world strong, which depend on them.

GWEN IFILL: Market-oriented responses to the same kind of goals. Well, thank you all very much for joining us.