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Christine Todd Whitman

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Whitman is the former governor of New Jersey and served as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency from 2001 to 2003. As EPA administrator, Whitman told the 2001 G8 summit that Bush would uphold his campaign promise for a nationwide cap on carbon emissions, but found her credibility affected when the White House reversed course shortly thereafter. Here, Whitman tells that story, comments on allegations that the government suppressed data on global warming and gives her thoughts on the future of energy production. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted Jan. 9, 2007.

What were your expectations when you knew you were going to be the head of the Environmental Protection Agency?

I was really hopeful that we were going to be able to move environmental protection forward to the 21st century, the kind of environmental protection that I think that we deserve and we are ready for as a country. Recognizing what we had done since 1970, when the agency was first established, which was a very heavy regulatory hand out of Washington, which had to happen at the time -- I mean, back in 1970 ... you had rivers that spontaneously [combusted]; you had thousands of people hospitalized every summer because of bad air quality; you had land being polluted, used as a toxic-waste dump, with no regulation in sight that was having any impact.

Over the 30 years to ... 2000, you saw a change and a beginning of an environmental ethos. We were ready for the next level, which said, ... first of all, let's get away from this argument that this is a zero-sum game; that someone is going to lose for somebody to win; that you can't have a clean, healthy environment and a thriving economy. You can and you must have both those things together, frankly, and we needed to break that mind-set. And what that means is you have regulations; you enforce them; you have penalties; but you also allow for some creativity. ...

Government can do a lot of things well, but one of government's strong points is not creativity. The private sector, on the other hand, has an enormous amount of creativity, and you need to harness that. ... Give them a little flexibility, because they'll get there faster, and they'll do a better job than we could come up with. ...

When you watched the Bush campaign in 2001, you knew that candidate Bush had spoken about "carbon caps," which was further than the Gore-Clinton administration. Were you surprised by that? ...

As a governor, [Bush] had imposed carbon caps in Texas, so I noticed. It wasn't a big part of the campaign, but it was there, and that made me feel good, frankly. That told me that we really can do something here, and we can break some new ground, and we can take on an issue, because to me, the environment has always been a Republican issue, going back to Teddy Roosevelt. ... Ninety-nine percent of the major regulations of the Environmental Protection Agency, and all the regulations that underpin the way we protect the environment today, were all signed by Republican presidents working with a Congress largely in the hands of the other party. But it showed that this was a bipartisan issue; this is one where people could get together, and they could really make a difference. ...

Did you think that this administration in 2000 was going to be that kind of Republican administration?

I really felt we had a chance at that, yes. ...

After the administration came in -- and you were part of those transition meetings -- did you ever talk to George Bush about the carbon caps?

I didn't talk to him about the carbon caps. I talked to him about the environment overall. I certainly talked about the carbon caps before, and I went over to the first G8 meeting in Trieste, [Italy, in March 2001].

The way it happened was the equivalent to flipping the bird, frankly, to the rest of the world on an issue about which they felt so deeply.

I went through the White House; I went to all of them and said, "Look, I am going to go over there, because all of the European and the G8 countries are big supporters of the [Kyoto] Protocol." At that point, they hadn't ratified it, but they have been very involved in the process, and clearly very supportive. "And I am very comfortable saying, 'We are not going to sign the protocol'" -- that didn't bother me -- "but I am going to say, 'The president has called for a cap on carbon.' Is that OK?" I just wanted to "run it up the traps," again, as they say these days. ...

And in that White House, who said, "You can go to Trieste, and you can say those things"?

Well, I ran it through the National Security Council, and I ran it through the chief of staff. I ran it through everybody that I could think of.

So that was Andy Card and Condoleezza Rice?


And they said?

They were comfortable with it.

As you understood it.


You could go to Trieste. You can say --

This was part of the campaign. This was what the president said; it was one of the planks in his platform. It was there in the briefing books afterwards, when I went up to the Hill to go through my confirmation. I mean, it was there. And they said, "Yeah, it's there."

One of the things that I read in [Ron Suskind's book about former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill,] The Price of Loyalty -- it's somewhat about your issue and somewhat about O'Neill's -- is that none of you really had those kind of conversations with the president; that after you were all brought in, there were no specific conversations. And I wondered if that was your experience. ...

No, I didn't have the same experience that Paul talks about in his book. I went to the president a couple of times on other issues, not on the carbon -- that one happened after the Trieste meeting -- but on other issues. And every time I went, he was engaged, he was briefed, and we had a conversation about whatever the issue was.

He was someone who cared. He would say: "I don't want just no net loss of wetlands. I want more protection of wetlands. I want more wetlands protected." He got it, and we were on the same page. And then things would change. ...

So you are getting ready to go to Trieste, and you get an invitation to go on [Crossfire on] CNN. ... Was the questioning rough that day?

... They are always rough, and you guys are always trying to poke holes and get us to say things that will embarrass somebody. I don't remember it being overly confrontational, no.

Were you aware that your interview on that program caused a firestorm?

... No, I wasn't, because I wasn't saying anything that I hadn't said before, that I hadn't checked, that I wasn't comfortable with [as] part of the president's program. It just never occurred to me. I didn't realize that there were people who were going to see that as an attempt on my part to undermine the president and to somehow sneak Kyoto in the back door. ... It never occurred to me that this would be seen as being "disloyal" to the president, which was certainly was not my intent. ...

Then you get on the plane.


And you go to [Trieste].

There was obviously a certain amount of skepticism about what this administration's commitment was going to be to the environment, primarily because all of the G8 had been so involved in Kyoto and were very skeptical when the president said very clearly during the campaign that we were not going to be [implementing the protocol] -- even though they should have known that because of what had happened before. But they were disappointed by it. ...

When I reiterated the pledge on carbon, that made them feel a lot better. ... It made them feel that there was somebody here with whom they could work. I said, "OK, it won't be Kyoto as we had negotiated it," ... but to hear that there was going to be a call for a cap on carbon from the very highest branches of the federal government and from the president himself, that made them feel a lot better.

And you were pretty clear that that's what was going to happen in Trieste?

Yeah, I was, yeah. Little did I know. ...

You got home from Trieste. ... When did you know that there was some doubt to where this issue was going?

I started to get rumblings about a day or two after that. I hadn't realized what a firestorm the CNN interview had caused and that there had been all these letters from the Hill and articles saying I was trying to drag the president into [a] policy of which he didn't approve and all this kind of thing. Then we started getting some back channels out of the White House and the Council on Environmental Quality [CEQ] that there was some question about the actual commitment to the cap on carbon.

And of course you have to remember this was also ... when you were having the brownouts and the blackouts in California; you had a fear of there being rolling blackouts around the country. We are ... 52, 53 percent dependent on coal for our energy, and so there was all that starting to play into it. ... If the president ... were to say, "We are going forward with the cap on carbon," the utilities then would start making instantaneous decisions -- because they do such long-range planning -- that would cause either more importation of foreign oil, which no one wanted, or more exploration for domestic sources, which no one was willing to support at that point, and that they would start to back away from the coal, which was so important.

So that's where the thinking was going. ... I didn't want to "undermine" coal, and I knew coal was always going to be there as part of our energy source. But it was a question of doing it in a way that would still allow us to address the issue of carbon, which I thought we could do, and not totally end the coal mining industry.

But this was a campaign pledge; it had been out there. Why did your appearance on CNN and then your trip to Trieste crystallize a push against the policy? ...

And people knew about it. I think what it was was that there had been an assumption, on the Hill particularly, that "Now we are in control; ... Republicans are in control." In the last years of the Clinton administration the EPA got very active, particularly in going after the utility industry on new [energy] source review, and they hadn't been that active before. ...

Then I guess they saw me out there talking about carbon. ... They didn't really trust me anyway. I am from New Jersey; I am from the Northeast. And I was somebody who believes in environmental protection, and we have done a lot of it here. ...

The way they saw it, I guess, is the way they see so many things in Washington. It's all about power; that I was kind of flexing my power muscles at the head of the agency, and I was trying to usurp other things; that I might actually win this one. I think they were really afraid that the administration might actually go along, and they didn't want to see that happen.

Talk about the day that you went to the White House, thinking that you were going to talk the president out of it. ...

We were supposed to talk about this whole issue, and so I went into the Oval Office to meet with him; it was just the president and Andy Card and I. It was kind of to go through the reasons why we were going to go away from the cap on carbon and back away from it. There really wasn't much discussion about climate change or how we could live up to the campaign promise or anything like that.

And then, when I left, as I came out of the Oval Office, the vice president was coming down the hall, putting on his coat, and he said, "Well, was the letter ready?," and took a letter. I didn't know what it was at the time, but it turned out it was the letter to Hagel, and Hagel had written the president with great concern about the things that I had been saying. ...

Sen. Chuck Hagel [R-Neb.].

Sen. Chuck Hagel. And this was a letter that the president sent back to him that I think probably went further than even the senator expected in saying that not only were we reiterating the fact the president was not going to ratify Kyoto, or try to ratify Kyoto, but that we were not going to have a cap on carbon. ...

Have you ever talked to Chuck Hagel about this?

No, no, I never have, actually. ...

How did the president tell you that? What did he say?

... He went through the concerns about energy policy in general, and I could understand [it]. I mean, it was one of those things I could understand where, if you have been a governor of a state ... and you implemented a cap on carbon in your state, and it worked, and that was fine, and then all of a sudden, you are on the national stage and you have the whole country to be responsible for, ... that you suddenly are confronted with this issue of carbon that's not quite as easy to deal with as you might have thought.

I wasn't happy with it. I thought there were ways that we could have done it better. We still could have had a cap on carbon, but I could understand where he was coming from on it.

It troubled me greatly, because obviously -- it wasn't my credibility so much, although my credibility as a representative of the administration bothered me. It was clearly going to be hurt by this, and the administration's credibility was going to be hurt by this in a community that I felt we could draw in.

I really felt that the president should be able to get some credit. In those first two and a half years when I was there, we did some good things for the environment. One of them was called by one of the largest environmental lobbying groups in Washington "the best thing for human health since lead was taken out of gasoline." So it wasn't as if the administration didn't do anything on the environment. But with this act and the way it was handled, we undermined any possibility of really engaging this community in a straightforward way. ...

Do you think that the president understood that there was going to be a huge, huge reaction in the rest of the world?

I am not sure they understood how big a reaction it was going to be, and I am not sure it would have made much of a difference even if they had, because what was happening here was more important.

And it was a big reaction.

It was a big reaction; it was a very big reaction. And it was a British paper, I think, that said, "With one stroke of the pen, the president has determined that there are more important things in the world than the rest of the world"; basically, that the United States is more important, and that there are other issues; that this is a minor thing. The way it happened was the equivalent to flipping the bird, frankly, to the rest of the world on an issue about which they felt so deeply. It was something that just sort of said: "Well, we really don't care. It's not important to us."

The thing that was so upsetting about that is that's not the way we have handled it. I mean, the president has called for an 18 percent reduction in greenhouse gas intensity; we spend over $4 billion a year now in climate change technology and research development; we have bilateral, multilateral agreements with most of the rest of the developed world on things like coalbed methane and hydrogen fuel cells. ...

This was really an instance of domestic politics trumping policy, and because domestic politics said, "Your base doesn't like Kyoto, doesn't think global climate change is a real issue, and hates regulation," we never talked about the things that we were doing that were addressing the issue.

... How much do you think that the vice president had to do with that decision?

I think he probably had a great deal to do with it. He is certainly the one who had the lead on the energy issues. He chaired the energy task force of which I was a part, and the very first meetings were really focused on how it was environmental regulations that were causing most of the troubles.

How did you react to that?

Not as well as I think he might have liked. ... But there was clearly a bias; that the environmental regulations were what were hamstringing the energy industry in the country.

... The quote from that conversation was, "The vice president's fingerprints were all over this." Why do you think that he was the most powerful arguer against carbon caps? What was his argument?

I don't know what his argument was; I never had it with him. I mean, we talked about the issue in general; that one, carbon, we didn't really talk about much. I had long conversations back and forth with him -- well, no. I had long conversations with him; it wasn't a lot of back-and-forth with him. And he sort of smiles and nods, and you don't really know where he is on a lot of things.

But on this one, I can only imagine that it was the industry saying: "Look, if you do this, you are going to throw the economy of the country into a complete tailspin. You are going to see utilities move away, start disinvesting in their coal facilities, ... and we are not going to be able to make up our need for energy through anything else. I mean, we are not going to get there through renewables; they are not ready." ...

As you know, the vice president said that conservation is "a personal value." ... He clearly has an approach. And I really do think it was the industry, with some validity. But a lot of it was scare tactic.

And do you think that he believed in that and spoke to the president about that?

Oh, yeah, I think so, absolutely. And I think there was great deference given to his opinion.

... [Secretary of State] Colin Powell said that you were the "wind dummy," which is a military term. You throw something out of an airplane --

You throw something out of an airplane to see which way the wind is blowing before you let the men and women jump.

Do you think that was true?

I don't think so. ... Well, maybe. I don't know. Maybe I was being naive about it; it could be. Colin and I each at different times felt we were sort of out there and not exactly in sync with all the thinking that was going on. ...

But I will say I do not think that the president set me up; I honestly don't think that. He was very apologetic after the carbon -- after that whole thing. And he apologized to me; he apologized to me in front of the Cabinet. ...

I honestly believe that the president was persuaded by the arguments that were brought to him from the energy industry, and I think the vice president brought him those arguments. Again, I think there was some legitimacy to it. I don't think they were right -- I think there were ways to get around that; I don't accept it 100 percent -- but you could understand where they were coming from. ...

But the vice president also said that you were a good soldier.

Oh, I never, you know, have turned on them, as it were, because it's not -- again, it's easy to sit in one chair and second-guess everybody else, and they have a responsibility for the whole country.

When did they apologize? And how much?

Oh, he apologized pretty soon after, when it all got out and you had all those headlines about it. At the next Cabinet meeting, he apologized.

Because he realized that you were on the line?

Yeah, that my credibility had been somewhat undermined, to put it mildly. There were a couple of sort of gleeful headlines, and some of the press saying that it's the shortest ride of an EPA administrator having any credibility. Some people expected me to resign right away in a huff and all that sort of thing.

... There is a very interesting Washington Post article by Jeremy Symons, who was there when you were there; he was the climate adviser for the EPA. It talks about the six-page memo [from] early in the administration. It listed the potential impacts on the coal industry, but there was only six sentences about global warming. And this, he writes, was sort of the basis of the beginning of the turn in the administration. ... Were you aware of that?

I don't remember that, no. ... I wasn't aware of it, and I don't remember that.

The Energy Department also sends a memo that says something quite different, but it was ignored at the White House.

... I don't remember, because again, as far as we were concerned on this issue, I was just told that the change had happened. There wasn't a lot of discussion. ...

Let me go back to Jeremy Symons. ... He says that in September of 2002, when you are still there the White House stripped a global warming section from an annual EPA report on trends in air pollution, and he said that update had been included for years.

The White House was very interested in not having a whole lot about climate change as part of policy. ... We did a report card on the environment before I left, which was something that had not been done before. So it was not a regular update; it was something brand-new. ...

When we got to the climate change issue, we went back and forth with the White House. ... And when I say the White House, it means Council on Environmental Quality, which is responsible, as you know, for coordinating policy throughout and across the administration. And the scientists that we got to agree on the overall report card included not just our scientists, but scientists from [the Department of] Energy, from NOAA [National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration], from all across the federal government, as well as from the National Academy [of Sciences], and from some think tanks and some universities. So it wasn't just a small group of scientists.

We could not get language on climate change that, to me, made any sense at all; they couldn't get agreement from these scientists. But having said that, I looked at it and said, look, it's been 30 years, and it's taken this long to get agreement from the scientists on benchmarking air, land, water [pollution] and human health. In the scope of science, climate change is relatively young. I am not surprised that we have this kind of a disconnect among the scientific community on how you word this, because they wanted to be very precise.

The language that they would agree to put in on climate change was such pabulum as far as I was concerned that I was afraid it was going to undermine the credibility of the rest of the science throughout the report, which is very, very good. It's an excellent report and very comprehensive. So I said: "Look, take it out. I am not going to fight this battle, because we'll never get the report card done, and we'll never get this document out." ...

So all we did is put in two paragraphs that said, "Climate change is an issue, and here are the latest studies that are being done on it." That became the entire focus of the report card, which was so frustrating to me, because the rest of it, I feel, is -- and still is -- very, very important to making sound decisions, moving forward and protecting the environment. And then the whole thing got lost over "climate change," because by then it had become the issue.

There had been other times when the administration had downplayed ... the science that said, "This is a real issue, and we need to act now." And they had given more credibility to this questioning science.

And that was consistent.


And you saw that again and again from the White House.

Yeah, I saw it again and again.

And who was it that was doing that?

It was coming out of the Council on Environmental Quality, but they don't act in a vacuum. It was coming out of the White House somewhere. I know, again, that the vice president's job was very involved in any of the things that had to do with energy or the environment, so I can only presume that a lot of it came from there.

Why do you think that the vice president's office wanted to downplay -- even in EPA reports -- anything that talked about global warming and climate change?

Because of the consequences of taking action. ... Unlike what we did with acid rain, the focus was probably not going to be as broad across industry. It really was going to focus on the utility industry, and, you know, the vice president came from the utility industry. He understood it well. The president, to a degree, had also been part of the utility industry, and they were very close to them. ...

I am going to ask a little bit more about this idea of suppressing information, deleting information. We have talked to a number of scientists who worked on this 2001 [National Assessment on] Climate Change. Do you remember? ...


... And they said that this was suppressed by the Bush administration.

I heard a lot of charges of that, and all I can speak from is my experience. As long as the science was there, we put the science out. The thing that bothers me about all this is, what people ... forget in a lot of these issues [is that] science is rarely the sole basis for making these decisions. There are always policy considerations that go along with it, but the science underpins it; the science forms the basis.

What you should do is always present the science as it is and what it says, and when there are disagreements, you can put those out there, too. And then if you are making a policy decision that disagrees with the science or it goes the other way, you make it, but you say, "This is why." ...

What you shouldn't do is try to make the science something it isn't to fit a conclusion you want. Be upfront about it, ... but don't try to suppress the science. We had science advisory boards at the agency, and we never tried to stack them with utility people, and we never told them they couldn't put a report out. We didn't always go with the recommendations that they made, but we were pretty clear about why we didn't, if we didn't.

The scientists who did the 2001 assessment say that it was one of the most comprehensive pieces of science across the country. ... Do you think that because this document was suppressed, that actually Americans lost something?

Well, I think we have been losing for a long time by not having a really comprehensive discussion of this, an upfront, open discussion. ...

There was a NASA-funded study about the same time that came out that said in the previous 300 years, you would have had to double the amount of carbon emitted into the atmosphere to equal the impact on climate change you had from land-use changes: from deforestation, development, farming practices. Nobody talks about that, because there are so many oxes that get gored on that one. I know it's really easy to say, "It's all emissions," and emissions are clearly important; I mean, greenhouse gases are obviously extremely important. But we are not going to solve this problem if we just talk about greenhouse gases and don't talk about how we use the land and what we are doing to the land. ...

But do you think that some parts of the Bush administration did suppress the evidence about global warming in government reports?

I don't know. It all got there eventually. In the report that we put out, ... we referred people to all the most recent science on that thing, which were some pretty controversial reports.

... Were you aware that Phil Cooney, [the former chief of staff for the Council on Environmental Quality,] was editing science as it was coming out of the administration?


That was outside of what you were dealing with at the EPA?


Why did you quit?

Two reasons. One, because my husband and I actually like each other, and we didn't like the bifurcated marriage. It was just more of a strain than we thought it was going to be. ...

The other was over new source review, and the timing was around new source review. I had been on that issue for two and a half years in the administration, going back and forth with the vice president particularly on it. While I agreed that it needed to be changed, there needed to be a definition to this one part of it, routine, which is a critical part of the rule that had never been defined. With 10 regions under EPA, they interpreted it 10 different ways. So it was all over the place, and the way that they were going to define it, the levels that they were going to use, the numbers they were going to use ... were going to undermine a bunch of cases that had been brought against some of the worst offenders in the utility industry. As a governor, I had been party to some of those cases. I had put the state in on amicus. ... I couldn't sign a regulation that was going to undermine those cases. ... I knew that we could reform that part of new source review in a way that would protect those cases and still be a meaningful reform. But it was clear to me that I was going to lose on that one. ... I wasn't elected; the president was elected, and he had a right to set policy where he wanted it. He also had the right to have an administrator who would implement that policy in good conscience, and I just couldn't, ... so I left.

... We have been in Texas, and we have been watching the process of Texas deciding whether it wants another almost dozen coal plants.


... If the decision is yes, what do you think the effect of that decision will be?

Well, I think it's going to put an extra strain on our environment and air quality. Even with clean coal -- low-sulfur coal and all the new technologies and scrubbers you could put on -- you are still going to be seeing emissions. That's why I think we have got to look at more nuclear; we have got to do more for renewables; and we have got to do more with conservation, because we can do it now. We see it with programs such as Energy Star and things like that that are being run today, that are actually really having an impact on how much greenhouse gas we emit into the atmosphere. ...

Is there one [energy source] that satisfies what Texas needs and is cleaner than the approach that they are taking?

Well, there is no one answer that's going to solve everything. It's always going to be a mix. We are always going to have a mix in this country. ...

We are very good at saying no in this country to everything. We don't want LNG [liquid natural gas] facilities anywhere near us; we don't want to explore for oil and gas; we don't like coal; we won't touch nuclear. Hydro power only works when there isn't a drought. Even environmentalists aren't all that crazy about windpower.

So it's going to be a mix. There are going to be some new coal-fired plants. ... What we need to do is make sure ... they are burning as low sulfur as they can possibly burn, and they are going to be as clean as they can possibly burn. ...

... You say, "We are always going to have coal." Can we really afford to burn coal and still reduce our greenhouse gas emissions?

I think we can continue to burn coal and still control our greenhouse gas emissions, because we have seen some incredibly innovative approaches to how you deal with carbon. If we give industry a set standard ... and you have got to get to this level by a certain date, I can't begin to imagine what they'll come up with. But believe me, they'll come up with ways to do this. ...

Then why does Texas bother you?

Texas bothers me, but just because this is the quick, most obvious, easiest answer. ... Yes, we'll continue to have to burn coal, but it doesn't mean you have to increase that coal burning by that much.

Do you think they are gaming the system in Texas [by building plants before new regulations are passed]?

I can't speak for what they are thinking, but no, I think they are honestly thinking, "We are having growth." That's where you see the biggest amount of growth in this country, is in that belt in the Southwest. They can project a huge increase in demand, and what's the fastest way to meet that? If you were to build a new nuclear facility, it's anywhere between eight and 10 years to get that up and functioning, to get through all the regulatory process and then to actually build it, and to get it operating. Coal can come online much faster.

And as long as we have people that are going to insist on having -- you kno, how many different iPods do we all have? Telephones? BlackBerrys? They all require power. How many of us, when we go to buy our chargers, actually look for an Energy Star charger, which will use between 40 to 60 percent less energy than the standard model? We don't do all the things that we could do.

We do demand that we have the air conditioning, and we do demand that we have the heating. We like it warmer than we have ever liked it before, and we like it cooler in the summer than we have had it before. We have got a role here, as individuals, to play as well. And we can do it. ...

Do you think Americans are waking up to warming?

Yeah, I really think they are. ... It's creating the climate where I think it will allow government to act. And I think we will have a cap on carbon within the next three to five years. ...

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posted april 24, 2007

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