Environmentalists, who are often either mildly encouraged or bitterly disappointed by the initiatives coming out of the Clinton White House, know that they at least have a sympathetic ear with Kathleen Alana McGinty (better known as Katie), chairperson of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the president’s senior advisor on environment and natural resources issues.
Since her appointment in 1994, McGinty has worked to reform and speed up Superfund cleanup programs; helped shape the Pacific Northwest forest plan; worked on the Florida Everglades restoration program recently signed into law by the president; promoted the development and export of environmental technologies; and championed environmental health initiatives.
McGinty’s White House connection was then-Senator Al Gore, for whom she served as senior legislative assistant for energy and environmental policy. McGinty’s initial studies were in chemistry, and while pursuing a degree at St. Joseph’s University she worked as a lab assistant intern at Atlantic Richfield helping to develop wastewater treatment systems. After law school at Columbia (in the Science, Law and Technology Program), she was awarded the Congressional Fellowship of the American Chemical Society, which led to her service with Senator Gore and the White House appointment.
Interviewed in 1994 by the Gannett News Service, McGinty had high hopes that, among other things, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could be elevated to Cabinet status, major environmental laws would be reauthorized and strengthened, and more progress would be made in meeting the goals set at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Instead, as USA Today, noted, “a series of gaffes led some to wonder about the new team.” The Clinton administration got off to a slow start on the environment, and efforts to reform mining laws, raise grazing fees and encourage alternative energy sources stalled. But after President Clinton delivered a rousing Earth Day speech and announced major EPA funding increases in the 1995 budget, a green momentum began to appear (despite setbacks like Clinton’s signing of the timber salvage rider, a sop to big forestry interests that even he now admits was a mistake).
Campaigning in the later days of 1996, Clinton once again talked up the environment, as he signed wilderness protection bills in Utah and stopped a destructive mining plan in Yellowstone Park. And standing in the White House next to Al Gore as the president’s biggest environmental booster is Katie McGinty, who was interviewed at her Washington office.
E: Let me start with the theme of this issue, which is women in the environmental movement. There are women heading quite a number of the larger environmental groups now, and I was wondering if you thought women had any special feeling for nature and the environment.
KATIE MCGINTY: I happen to believe that all of us actually have a very special connection to the environment on both a physical and spiritual level. Do women have a special affinity? I think certainly women come to the connection between environmental quality and health out of concern for the well-being of their families, I think there is a very deep sensitivity that women have to those kinds of issues. Beyond that, I remember what Rachel Carson once said when asked about her own commitment to the environment. She said that she was sentimental about nature and made no apologies about that. Maybe that’s a characteristic that’s more common in women than of men. It’s certainly something that I share.
What do you think of the effectiveness of the environmental groups, particularly the Washington-based environmental groups, and which are your favorites?
I don’t know that I have any favorites, but I think they have performed a critical role in these last two years in reaching out to their own grassroots constituencies. They let people know what the fine print in the Contract on America really meant, and got their forces galvanized. So I think the environmental groups really performed very well and proved themselves quite valuable.
I also think that in the last 10 to 15 years, the environmental groups have played a critical role in investing in serious scientific, legal and economic talent, that has effectively enabled them to go toe-to-toe on Capitol Hill and within the agencies to help to shape environmental policy.
We’ve seen a real assault on environmental regulation from the 104th Congress. Perhaps drawing on your experience as a lawyer here, how successful do you think that assault has been and what forces have kept it at bay?
Thankfully, that assault is dead in its tracks. The President has stood up firmly and articulated the dangers that were hidden in these misleading initiatives that were called “regulatory reform,” but really amount to regulatory repeal. The president was willing to wield his veto pen in the face of efforts to dramatically reduce EPA’s budget, to end the Superfund program, to sell off our national parks. But I think also the environmental community played a critical role. A very positive trend in the movement, I think, is a new engagement on these issues by religious communities, labor communities and other groups that stood up and articulated our need to be committed to the common good, and not just to be emphasizing short-term expediency and greed.
A lot of people feel that President Clinton, while he has made some effective vetoes, has not been as much of an environmental leader as they had hoped, particularly with Al Gore as vice president. I’m thinking of his signing of the Timber Salvage Rider, for instance. Do you think he could have done more?
I think the president has shown exemplary leadership on the environment, starting from the first days of this administration. Literally in his first week in office, reversing the policies of the previous administration and putting the United States back in a leadership role in family planning. Shortly thereafter, he doubled the number of chemicals that chemical companies need to report to the communities in which they operate; and he issued new rules to crack down on hazardous waste incinerators, reducing their emissions by 98 percent. Since the Clean Air and Clean Water Act were passed, any president has had the authority to take those initiatives; none did. It was this president that showed that leadership, and that was from the beginning of the administration. The president also played a strong defense in fighting back—to the cost of shutting down the government, not once but twice—the radically anti-environmental agenda of the 104th Congress. On top of all of that, this is a president that has put forward a tremendously far-reaching plan to rescue the Everglades, and has put forward a plan to save Yellowstone from mining. The Utah National Monument designation is a historic moment; it’s the largest national monument ever created. There’s nothing but leadership in that initiative. There is no gun pointed to our heads that says we had to do it; the president acted on his own because he knew it was right and he insisted on taking steps to protect that extraordinary and unique area.
What about the Timber Salvage Rider? President Clinton now says he regrets having signed that.
That’s right, and to me the Timber Salvage Rider is t
he exception that proves the rule. It was a mistake. Vice President Gore has said it’s probably the largest mistake we made in our first three and a half years in office. But what have we done in the face of that rider? First of all we have fought its expansive interpretation in court and we have won some very significant battles that have dramatically curtailed the breadth of that piece of legislation. Second, we have issued Presidential directives followed up by secretarial directives, which again dramatically narrowed the amount of timber that would be cut down because of the rider. Third, we have recently concluded an agreement with the most significant timber operators to allow environmental laws to be reintroduced after the logging is completed, forswearing entry by those companies into old-growth areas.
If you add all of these things up, the real-world impact of this legislation is small. It’s a bad bill, and it’s bad for the environment. It was anti-democratic in the way it cut the public out of the process. But through the President’s leadership, I think we have dramatically minimized what could have been very severe and adverse impacts.
I know the president was a big supporter of both The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Some people think those agreements have had negative effects by reducing the need for foreign trading partners to comply with U.S. environmental standards.
There’s no case to be made that either of those agreements have led to a suspension of environmental laws. But certainly there is the concern that increased trade will lead to increased environmental degradation, and there are some environmental groups who have taken that posture. Many other environmental groups—in fact, the leading environmental groups in the United States—joined with the president in support of NAFTA. And that’s because we insisted that NAFTA would be a tool to insure that environmental laws were enforced. We can’t guarantee that any country enforces environmental laws or any other law; that’s in the sovereign domain of that country. But we now have a tool which can ensure against the lowering of environmental standards or a failure to enforce environmental laws for short-term economic gains. We never had those tools before, but that kind of practice is now expressly prohibited in NAFTA. With the joint environmental committees we now have with Canada and Mexico, we actually review any complaint that environmental standards are not being followed. We never had that ability before.
Your office leads the administration’s Reinvent Environmental Regulations program. When Republicans talk about that, it often means getting rid of them, what do you mean by “reinventing environmental regulations”?
What we mean is enhancing and strengthening environmental protection. And that means getting rid of excessive paperwork where it’s possible. However, as we have given companies flexibility, we have enhanced their accountability, and we have done that in two respects. Wherever we are willing to cut unnecessary red tape, we have insisted first that the companies not only meet current environmental objectives, but that they achieve superior environmental performance. Second, as we’re being less dictatorial and pursuing approaches other than command and control, we have said to companies that they’ve got to give community representatives a seat at the table, to help insure that environmental progress is, in fact, being achieved locally. So in every instance, our objective is to enhance environmental performance and improve the performance of major statutes like The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. That stands in dramatic contrast to the agenda on Capitol Hill last year, which was not about strengthening the environmental laws, but about stripping them of their effectiveness.
What kind of Presidential environmental initiatives and leadership might we see in a second Clinton term?
I think in terms of air and water pollution, the president is very anxious to move forward and increase even further the tools that local communities have at their disposal. I think that you will see continued expansion of the community right-to-know laws. We’re going to try to take the information that currently is available only on an annual basis and make it available to communities and families on a real-time basis on-line, so they can get information about air quality and water quality right there in their own neighborhoods.
Second, the president realizes that the most critical habitats for threatened and endangered species are on private land. So he wants to work aggressively to expand upon the habitat conservation agreements we currently have with private land owners. We’ve got 300 of them out there now, but there’s much more work to be done to bring all of that critical habitat into some level of protection.
Do you see progress being made in reducing greenhouse gases coming out of this administration? We aren’t making as much progress on global warming as was planned in Rio in 1992.
The president has stated on several occasions that he really does believe that global climate change is the most serious environmental challenge that we face, deserving of very serious attention. That’s why, frankly, he rejected the policy of the Bush administration and committed this country to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Well, how are we doing that? We still have as many polluting cars as we ever did.
First of all, we now have nearly every major utility in the United States signed up to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions significantly. Most of them are committed to the goal of reducing their emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. In the auto sector, we also have a major initiative with the big three auto makers that has us on track by the year 2003 to produce a commercially viable car that will achieve three times the fuel efficiency of current vehicles. That’s going along very, very well.
Do you think a fuel-efficient gasoline vehicle will eliminate the need for electric cars?
Electric cars are also part of that mix. I said the car would have three times the fuel efficiency. But if the commercially viable car that is settled upon in this process is an electric car, the idea is that it would reach the equivalent of three times the fuel efficiency of current vehicles.
Now having mentioned those two areas of major progress, the president’s request for renewable energy and energy efficiency investments has been slashed in the last two budget cycles. The Republican Congress hasn’t wanted to invest in those kinds of technologies—even though those funds were to support partnership approaches with industry. They really fought to cut the legs out of those initiatives. We will fall short of our goal of achieving 1990 greenhouse gas levels by the year 2000, mostly because the Congress has failed to fund the requests that the president has submitted.
A final question. The White House remains a fairly male-dominated institution. What’s it like to be a woman operating in that arena?
There are many women actually in very senior positions. I’m not too alone around here. The president really has elevated the role and status of
women across the board in this administration, in the agencies and in the White House itself.
Are there many women in your own office?
Probably at least 50 percent of my staff are women. A lot of my senior policy people are women, my general counsel and associate general counsel are women, my lead staff person on national parks and clean air issues is a woman, my public liaison director is a woman. So, yes, we’re pretty well-represented around here.
JIM MOTAVALLI is editor of E.