September 5, 2003

September 5, 2003 | Commentary on Energy and Environment

EPA Nominee Faces Troubled Waters

Members of the U.S. Senate will vote soon on whether to confirm Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt as Environmental Protection Agency administrator.

Since being elected governor in 1992, Leavitt has gained the reputation of being a consensus-builder. He's smart. He's well liked and respected by those who know him best -- the people of Utah and his fellow governors.

He has been an influential pioneer in environmental improvement. With former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, Leavitt co-authored the Enlibra (from the Latin for "to move toward balance") doctrine -- eight principles that promote balanced environmental stewardship. The doctrine has been adopted by the National Governors' Association, the Western Governors Association and numerous federal, state, local and private entities.

Leavitt favors cooperative decision-making that involves all interested parties over top-down directives from Washington. The approach served him well as co-chair of the Western Regional Air Partnership -- which developed a multi-state agreement to limit haze caused by air pollution -- and in his work with other governors seeking more state control of Clean Water Act regulations.

In pursuit of cooperative solutions to environmental problems, Leavitt has consistently rejected extreme dogma. For instance, on the perpetual expansion of the Endangered Species Act, Gov. Leavitt wrote: "I support a national effort to preserve selected species, but our current law … is unmanageable. Do animal rights have precedence over plant rights? Vertebrate rights over invertebrate rights? Mammals over fish? Can we take antibiotics as soon as we feel sick, or do the bacteria have a right to due process?"

Partly as a result of his refusal to cater to extremists of any stripe, the Associated Press reports, Leavitt "enjoys bipartisan support from his fellow governors and can expect their help to win confirmation." The story cites praise from Washington Gov. Gary Locke and Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry, both Democrats, as well as Republican Govs. Mike Johanns of Nebraska, John Hoeven of North Dakota and Sonny Perdue of Georgia.

And Leavitt's balanced approach does more than win friends. It produces results. His office reports that Utah now meets all federal air quality standards, that 73 percent of Utah's streams meet federal water quality standards (up from 59 percent 10 years ago and far ahead of the national average of 60 percent), and that Utah's "concentrated animal-feeding operations," which reduce the impact of farming and ranching on water quality, have become a national model.

But none of this will spare him a rough ride through the confirmation process. Partisan political opponents and never-say-compromise environmental alarmists seem poised to use Leavitt's confirmation hearings to put President Bush's energy and environment policies on trial.

In a hint of things to come, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., a candidate for president, hotly proclaimed that the Senate should reject any nominee who "shares the same disregard for clean air, clean water, land conservation and global warming" as President Bush. Confirming Leavitt, warned the Sierra Club, would "not alleviate concerns that the Bush administration is prone to making shady deals at the expense of a safe and healthy environment." The Natural Resources Defense Council asserted that confirming Leavitt "would provide little hope of improvement" for the nation's environment.

But remember, these groups are hardly mainstream. They look at the administration's plan to curb wildfires in the west by clearing brush from the western forests and see nothing but a cynical pay-off to the timber industry. The administration's effort to address extensive insect and disease infestation in eastern forests? Another pay-off. These are people who call natural gas the "clean fuel," but oppose constructing terminals to receive it.

In other words, Gov. Leavitt, welcome to Washington. But buckle up. It's going to be a rough ride.

 

Charli Coon is an energy and environment analyst at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.

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