Michael Leavitt: EPA’s Messenger

The Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) is a determinedly non-partisan organization whose members tend to cover the same basic issues, but come from a plethora of publications with widely divergent editorial policies, staffed by reporters with many different personal views. So it was that when SEJ met in Pittsburgh for its 14th annual conference last week, it invited Robert Kennedy, Jr. as a keynote speaker, but also extended an invitation to the 10th administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Michael Leavitt.

© Jim Motavalli

As several SEJ members remarked, it"s surprising that Leavitt, the former governor of Utah, is not more visible as the Bush administration"s point man on the environment. He comes across as both likable and moderate—qualities in short supply in Bush"s Washington. He"s very folksy, tells reasonably funny jokes and self-effacing stories, and admits candidly that mere days before an election he"s not planning to generate any controversial headlines.

Leavitt says we have a consensus building in the U.S. "A new environmental maturity has overtaken this country," he says, and the argument now is not whether we want to conduct cleanups, but how to do them effectively. He claims to have put forth stringent new standards for air pollution and mercury emissions, giving the lie to Robert Kennedy"s claim the previous day that Bush has been "the worst environmental President in history."

And yet, in Pittsburgh, Leavitt was a great salesman with very little to sell. The administration"s environmental initiatives have been roundly criticized for, in many cases, flying under "false flags." Critics say the "Healthy Forests" initiative cuts down trees, and the "Clear Skies" plan allows more power plant pollution.

As the Sierra Club notes, Bush tried to win environmental support with what it characterizes as a 70 percent cut in air pollution from power plants over the next 15 years. "But why is the Administration bragging about a plan that will actually result in more pollution than if we simply enforced the existing Clean Air Act?" Sierra asks.

As to "healthy forests," CNN writes, "Bush wants to make it easier for loggers to thin out backcountry forests by easing regulatory restrictions and making it harder for environmentalists to stop or delay that work. Environmentalists and conservationists, however, say it’s drought, and not environmental laws, that has created the current atmosphere." The Wilderness Society"s William H. Meadows commented, "Wilderness and roadless areas are too valuable to be handed over to the logging industry in the name of ‘fuel reduction.’”

Leavitt seemed very proud of the administration"s mercury rules, which he said responded to "proper heightened public concern," and he repeatedly urged the journalists assembled in Pittsburgh to ask about them. But to the Mercury Policy Project (MPP) and other critics, the new rules (mandated in the last days of the Clinton administration) are too little and too late. "The technology exists today to reduce mercury emissions from power plants by 90 percent in three years—from about 50 to five tons annually," MPP says. "However, the EPA"s current rule will reduce annual mercury emissions to only about 34 tons by 2010, and potentially 15 tons by 2018."

Leavitt"s speech didn"t mention climate change, so I did. I asked him if the administration was, in fact, willing to admit that global warming is real. Leavitt responded that the Bush administration believes that humans have had a discernible effect on the climate, and that the surface of the planet is appreciably warming. Since this is almost exactly what the distinguished group of climate scientists gathered together under the UN"s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said, I followed up by asking if the administration endorses the IPCC findings. Well, no. "I said what I said," Leavitt replied firmly.

Leavitt didn"t want to give the impression that the administration has done nothing while the planet"s surface heats up. "We are engaged in that area right now," he said. "We do in fact see it as an area we have to focus on." But even as Russia ratified the Kyoto Protocol, ensuring it will go into effect, Leavitt remained dismissive. To suggest that because we refused to accept the Kyoto Treaty [which he called "lousy" for U.S. interests] we"re not engaged is simply wrong," he said. "We are party to 12 international agreements." He then outlined, at length, a global monitoring program, joined by 47 countries, with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Administrator Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Jr. as a guiding force. But measuring climate emissions is not the same as reducing them, and Leavitt didn"t even mention the President"s voluntary and so far ineffective initiative that is supposed to reduce emissions 18 percent over 10 years.

It"s interesting that Leavitt"s tenure has received very little press attention. He is more of a behind-the-scenes operator than was his predecessor Christine Todd Whitman, who was on several occasions embarrassed by White House retractions of her public policy statements.

Leavitt had a higher profile as Governor of Utah. In that state, some greens have tried to dispel the notion that Leavitt is a low-key consensus builder. According to Zach Frankel of the Utah Rivers Council, “There has been some discussion that Governor Leavitt is some kind of moderate on the environment but a review of his record shows otherwise." Frankel said in an Environmental Media Services dispatch that Utah was "tied for last among U.S. states for enforcement of the Clean Water Act and has the second-highest amount of toxic chemical releases in the nation
.From 1995 to 2002, Utah power plants increased emissions of nitrogen oxides while the rest of the nation decreased such emissions by some 21 percent on average."

In Utah, Leavitt supported a highway project that could have harmed wetlands along the Great Salt Lake. The Utah environmentalists also charged him with being lax in pursuing polluters.

In Pittsburgh, Leavitt did an excellent job of portraying an action-oriented, united EPA building consensus and achieving landmark agreements (on the Great Lakes, for instance) but to do that he had to ignore considerable internal dissention. Last year, EPA Chief Financial Officer Linda Combs sent a memo warning that the EPA faces "significant reductions to [its] core programs." Although the EPA"s budget has increased, as Leavitt noted in Pittsburgh, $750 million was directed to local water projects or Congressional mandates, threatening Superfund cleanup, grants to states to implement anti-pollution laws and, yes, Great Lakes water quality enforcement. Combs said, "Despite the increase to the overall Agency [budget] total, the prospects for our core programs are sobering…”

Another EPA voice raised was that of the former assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance, John Peter Suarez, who resigned early in 2004. Enforcement, says Suarez, doesn"t apply to power plant polluters. "It
became clear to me during my tenure at EPA that the goal of [New Source Review] NSR reform was to prevent any enforcement case from going forward," he said. Under

New Source Review, the Clinton administration took several major power producers to court for violating the law, but Suarez says that Bush "reform" went so far in the industry"s direction "that it doesn"t pass the laugh test."

When he answered my question. EPA Administrator Leavitt looked around the room until he located me back in my seat, said, "Oh, there you are," and proceeded to deliver his comments directly to me. It was a very personal process, and a winning one. One on one or in front of a large crowd, this is a very effective communicator. It"s too bad there"s so little to communicate.