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Christine Todd Whitman: Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency

April 17, 2001 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: Christine Todd Whitman came to the job as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency after being elected to two terms as governor of New Jersey. She stepped directly into the cross hairs of a highly-charged debate over the future protection of the nation’s air, water and land. In recent weeks the administration has begun outlining its environmental policies to mixed response. Administrator Whitman joins us now. Welcome.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: It’s a pleasure. Good to be with you.

GWEN IFILL: Every day, Administrator Whitman, it seems to be something. Today you announced it would be the release of the upholding of a Clinton administration regulation on lead.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: Right.

GWEN IFILL: Could you tell us what it is and why now.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: The why now is because that’s when the process, that’s the dates when these regulations are promulgated, there are dates that drive them. This is when we needed to respond to this one. It’s one that we had been looking at closely that obviously the previous administration considered good but hadn’t been able to implement and hadn’t gotten out there. And we think it’s worthy of promotion.

What it is is it’s going to require companies that use or store or emit a hundred pounds of lead to register. And that’s really what it is. It’s requiring the registration of anyone who is storing or using or emitting lead, 100 pounds of lead or more, to admit it. That’s going to capture about… to put this on a registry, that’s going to capture about 3,600 small businesses that haven’t been subject to this before. And what they’re just going to have to do is list it on the inventory.

GWEN IFILL: Yesterday another announcement, and this one having to do with the regulation of wetlands. The same question, why that one and why now?

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: Again, this is driven by court dates and it’s driven by regulatory processes, and so when it’s ready for a decision we make the decision just the way we made the decision back in the beginning of my tenure as administrator on diesel fuel, on cleaning up diesel fuel in those motors, as we made the decision on going ahead with the pesticide review. Those things are done when… They’re all time sensitive and they’re done when the time is ripe for a decision.

GWEN IFILL: As you well know, you’ve come under attack or at least some criticism since you’ve been running… since you’ve had this job about the administration’s stand on global warming, on the Kyoto global warming agreement on arsenic standards in water, on logging in forests. Let’s go through a couple of them one at a time. Let’s start with arsenic in water, which at least the late night comedians have really seized onto. Can you explain what the administration’s position is on this standard and whether what you’re reexamining is the science or reexamining the onerous regulations, the burdens it puts on business.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: Well, first and the most important thing to say is we will be lowering the standard of arsenic in drinking water. It is currently at 50 parts per billion. It’s been there for 50 years. It will be lowered and people will be safe and have safer water within the same time frame of the original proposal. We haven’t changed that yet but we have said we’re going to take another look. It’s really driven by two things: One is that there is no definitive scientific study that says at 10 parts per billion you’re safe and at 11 you’re not. I wish there were. But there isn’t.

So what I have asked — the National Academy of Sciences came to us when they looked at this and said 50 parts is too high and didn’t refine it any further than that. I want to see a refinement of that so we’re better able to make a good scientific judgment and at the same time arsenic is naturally occurring particularly in the West and Southwest. You find concentrations of very high naturally occurring arsenic.

I want to make sure that we have done everything that we need to do to understand what we’re going to be requiring of water companies out there and the burden we’re going to place on individuals relative to their water bills and their ability to access clean water so that we have everything in place to help and we avoid unintended consequences, which we have seen in the past of 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: It seems like in so many of these domestic issues you’re trying to balance out these unintended consequences against the science. How do you do that?

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: Well, we do it incrementally. We do it on each one of these decisions. The thing that you’re seeing on this administration’s record relative to the environment is that we are very environmentally sensitive but we don’t have an overarching political agenda that’s driving us. What we’re trying to do is ensure that we are protecting people in a way that allows them to continue to enjoy a quality of life which they’ve come to expect, and we’re enhancing environmental protection. And each issue is being judged on its individual merits. That’s how we’re going to make these decisions.

GWEN IFILL: I want to come back to the question of the political agenda in just a moment. First I want to ask you about global warming and the Kyoto global warming treaty, which this administration has stepped back from, at least for now. You’ve come under some criticism from foreign governments for pulling out of that treaty. What is your response to them?

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: Well, what we have said and what this president has said is he takes global warming very seriously. It’s an issue in which he wants to be engaged with the international community. But it’s no secret that when that treaty was first proposed to the Congress of the United States the Senate voted 95-0 against it; that even though there were 54 nations that signed the Kyoto protocol only one, Romania, has ratified it; that every other nation that was part of those initial discussions has serious problems with the protocol. It isn’t just the United States that has problems here and it isn’t just the United States that was unable to reach agreement in The Hague over a year ago.

So we are just part of a number of countries that really 54 of the, 53 of them, that have serious concerns. We want to be engaged with the international community. We believe this is an important issue. The president wants to see market-based solutions. He wants to see technology transfer issues discussed. He wants to see ways in which we can encourage the developing nations to be more active participants in this because without them, we are not enhancing the goal, which is to start addressing the issue of global climate change. You can’t leave out a huge part of the world and make improvements. He wants to see real improvements.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s go back to what you said a moment ago about a political agenda, that you said the Bush administration does not have. Do you suggest that the Clinton administration in promulgating many of these regulations had a political agenda or do you think that perhaps a lot of these regulations came about because of last-minute procrastination or to put the Bush administration in a bind just like this one?

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: No. I think what you see when I say political agenda, there are a lot of groups that have political agendas that want to see for whom any kind of compromise is no good, there’s no ability to try to find a middle ground because it just won’t satisfy them. And that makes it very difficult to try to judge things on their merit and we are going to continue to do that.

I can’t speak as to why the previous administration didn’t move these regulations sooner. They certainly knew about them. In fact on the arsenic one, they had asked for a year’s extension from Congress on reaching this number a year ago. And then they put it out at the very last minute. I am sure they were just trying to get something done. But for eight years they had been unable to get it done; the same thing with the diesel-sulfur rule. Some of them take time in promulgating. I don’t mean to imply that nothing happened at all. But obviously we’re now having to deal with what was left behind. As a new administration we reserve the right, as we should, to take a look at all of these to make sure they fit with what we think is in the best interest of the country.

GWEN IFILL: So you’re not suspicious of the Clinton administration’s timing on these.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: Well I wish they had been able to get some of them out a little sooner than they did. I always worry when I see ones that were pushed out the door on the 19th of January. That really was not necessary. We probably could have handled those ourselves.

GWEN IFILL: On another subject, the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge the president has suggested that he doesn’t think the Congress is going to be able to support his pledge to drill there for oil. As a member of Vice President Cheney’s Energy Review Commission, do you agree that’s not going to happen and do you think that maybe drilling will happen in other public lands instead?

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: Well I know that as we go forward as part of the energy task force that what we are doing and what it’s very clear we have an energy crisis in this country, we need to address it. It is real. And it is going to require that we look at a multitude of energy sources. We are going to need a diversity of energy sources. We need to look at where we can find that domestically as well as internationally but we want to try to avoid; we’ve seen some of the worst spills coming from tankers bringing oil to this country or anywhere. That’s where you see the majority of your spills that have done such huge environmental damage.

So there’s a balance that needs to be struck here using the 21st century technology and understanding our energy needs. We’re going to be presenting the president with a very comprehensive series of options for him to use, for him to present to the public as a national energy policy which we desperately need.

GWEN IFILL: What do you think is the realistic chance politically that Congress is going to approve drilling in Alaska?

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: I don’t know whether drilling in Alaska per se is entirely off the table with the Congress. As you look at what the real impact would be– and certainly it rests with Congress though — they’re the ones who are going to have to make the final determination. I do believe that they are going to have to look at what our energy needs are and how much of those needs we can and should be meeting domestically. That will ultimately drive their decision-making.

GWEN IFILL: If not Alaska, where? Great Lakes? The Gulf Coast?

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: There are a number of sources where we think there is energy. We know there is energy to be had — either gas or oil. There are places off the coast that can be drilled and again modern technology has made the drilling much safer. We do have to understand that we need to get our energy from somewhere. And if we don’t like fossil fuel combustion and coal, which is 51% of our energy now, if we don’t like gas because of pipelines we don’t like oil because we can’t drill for it, it’s dangerous — we won’t talk about nuclear and even, you know, even we found with windmills they tend to be in flyways. And that kills birds. We’re going to have to understand that modern technology, 21st century technology has allowed us to do some of these things in a way that is protective of the environment. We need to be willing to focus on that and talk about it.

GWEN IFILL: Should we be talking about nuclear?

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: We should be talking about all the potential energy sources because we really need to have them all on the table and make informed decisions based on what modern technology tells us we can do in a safe way, in a way that’s really protective of human health. At the same time, as you know, we need and we all demand as citizens that when we turn on a light switch the lights come on, that we have heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer, we want our computers to start right when we want them to start. We don’t want rolling blackouts. What we’re seeing in California now unfortunately is very real. There’s little that we can do from an administration’s perspective short-term. What we’re working toward is trying to solve this problem long term. But as we continue to increase energy demand and not increase energy production or bringing new power sources online, we’re just building in an even worse problem for the future.

GWEN IFILL: What is the chance in the trade off to find this balance there is going to be some interest in the environment, interests in the environment, sacrifice the need of energy in exchange for energy production?

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: See, I wouldn’t talk about environmental sacrifice. I don’t believe we need to sacrifice the environment. For instance, we have clean coal technology. It makes a huge difference on what’s being put out there. There are other ways to recapture down the line some of the things that are… that might be emitted.

For instance, in California they have to go to emergency generators that are diesel fuel combustion — most of those. What we have done from the environmental protection point of view is to work out a way that allows them to do that because they are dirtier — but have agreements to capture even more emissions a little further down the line which will be more environmentally protective but allows them to meet the current emergency. That’s the kind of flexibility that we need to have here — always mindful that our primary obligation at the Environmental Protection Agency is to protect the environment. And we will do that.

GWEN IFILL: Your critics — and I’m sure you’ve heard plenty from your critics since you’ve been in this office. But your critics also say that the Bush administration is doing… is upholding current law but not necessarily creating new protections. What is your response to that?

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: Well, right now we’ve got our hands full going over what was left behind. I can’t wait for the day when I don’t have any other regulations that were promulgated in the last 24 hours of the previous administration to have to make decisions on and we can really start focusing on the new challenges that are in front of us and the things that we want to do. And I know that’s true in every other agency.

They were very, very busy in those last couple of weeks, in the last couple of months for whatever the reason. And I would say that one of the things though that’s important here to understand is each one of those decisions is, in fact, policy, that it is our policy when we talk about going ahead with cleaner diesel fuel, that’s a very real decision that’s been made by this administration that has very real impacts on industry and is going to have a very real benefit to the environment.

GWEN IFILL: Secretary Whitman, thank you very much for joining us.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: It’s a pleasure.