At age 80, Bill Ruckelshaus still remembers those pro-environment days in the early 1970s, when his old Republican boss, then-President Richard Nixon, urged Americans to make peace with nature and his party joined Democrats to pass laws protecting the air and water.
“The public was really riled up about the health effects of pollution. Health is what gets people excited,” said Ruckelshaus, of Seattle, the first administrator to lead the Environmental Protection Agency when it opened for business 42 years ago.
Now, as President Barack Obama prepares to choose a new leader for the agency for his second term, any unanimity on environmental issues is long gone on Capitol Hill, where the EPA has become a favorite whipping boy for those who fear it has too much power.
Whoever gets the job will face circumstances that have become familiar: criticism from the right as going too far in pushing job-killing regulations, and criticism from the left as not doing enough to crack down on polluters.
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And the arguments will only intensify if the president, as expected, pushes a plan to reduce emissions as a way to fight global warming
Ruckelshaus, who also headed the agency for a stint under President Ronald Reagan, said the EPA had come under attack for so long that it now suffered from “battered agency syndrome.”
“In some ways, it sort of frees you up to do what you thought was right,” said Ruckelshaus, who wants the job to go to the former two-term governor of his state, Democrat Chris Gregoire, who left office in January. “Whatever they do, they’re going to make somebody mad. And usually everybody gets mad.”
Gregoire, who’s also rumored to be on the short list of candidates to replace Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, is one of a handful of high-profile names often mentioned as a potential successor to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, who announced her resignation in December.
Other top contenders include: the agency’s deputy administrator, Bob Perciasepe; Mary Nichols, the chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board; Kathleen McGinty, a former head of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection; and Gina McCarthy, who heads air quality for the EPA.
In Obama’s first term, the EPA implemented standards for mercury pollution, tightened rules on soot pollution and established tougher emissions standards for new power plants. It also set higher fuel-economy standards, which the administration boasts will do more to reduce global greenhouse-gas emissions than any action taken by other nations.
The administration now is finalizing emission rules for new power plants. Environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council are calling for rules that would target existing plants.
Such a move shifts the debate over regulating greenhouse gases to the executive branch and away from Congress, where polarizing politics, regional energy interests and pressure from big polluters and the influential energy sector hold more sway.
The president is receiving plenty of advice on who should lead the EPA for the next four years.
The agency needs someone who knows how the inside of the agency works, but who also can skillfully navigate the outside political realm, said Frank Maisano, a Washington-based lobbyist and spokesman for energy interests, including coal and solar. It would be in the administration’s best interest to replace Jackson with someone with similar social skills, he said. Jackson could "charm people to the best of her ability," he said.
"Her personality was a huge hit for her. She could go and charm Jim Inhofe, and that’s no small feat," Maisano said, referring to the former top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The Oklahoma senator has called global warming a hoax.
Environmental groups want the EPA to be led by someone who’ll uphold the agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, said Nathan Willcox, the federal global-warming program director for Environment America.
Willcox, too, thinks the agency needs as its figurehead someone who can act as "diplomat and explainer" to Congress.
"Some of our opposition on the Hill just comes from ignorance about what EPA’s authority actually is, and its obligations under the Clean Air Act," Willcox said. "We’re looking for an administrator who will embrace that, and get us the reduction in carbon pollution that we need.”
That’s a worrisome possibility for business groups, who say the EPA has no such authority.
“They’ve definitely taken their regulatory authority to places that were not necessarily contemplated by the laws when they were written – greenhouse gases is an excellent example of that. . . . And we have a problem with that,” said Ross Eisenberg, the vice president of energy and resources policy for the National Association of Manufacturers.
He said the problem had grown worse in recent years as the Obama administration had tried to flex its regulatory muscles more instead of dealing with the Republican-led House of Representatives. As an example, he cited Jackson’s decision to declare the shallow, concrete-lined Los Angeles River “navigable waters” as a way to protect it under the Clean Water Act.
“That’s navigable? I mean, give me a break. . . . It was almost comical,” Eisenberg said, citing the case as “symbolic of how things started to move” with the Obama administration.
Fifteen Democratic senators – including Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein of California and Bill Nelson of Florida – joined independent Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont in urging Obama last week to replace Jackson with someone who’ll retain a focus on public health and the environment.
"We know that pollution can cause asthma attacks, heart and lung disease, cancer, damage to the reproductive system, strokes and premature death," they wrote in a letter to the president. “As we confront these numerous and growing threats to our health, our nation needs another strong leader at EPA who will work to craft bold solutions to these serious problems, as well as enforce the Clean Air Act and our other landmark environmental laws that protect public health."
Critics of the EPA are predicting tough times ahead for business.
In December, Inhofe said the agency “seems willing to appease the far left” and ignore any need for balance in environmental regulation.
“The result: devastating impacts on jobs and our economy, which can seriously harm public health,” Inhofe said.
Last month, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue said major EPA rules imposed over the last 10 years had cost more than $23 billion and that new ozone regulations might cost up to $90 billion. He said the federal government was issuing about 4,000 regulations each year and that the EPA might “ensnare roughly 6 million facilities in burdensome permitting requirements” if it moved to apply rules on greenhouse gas emissions beyond power plants and refineries.
“When you consider all the new rules pouring through the regulatory pipeline, and those still to come, it is staggering,” Donohue said in his annual speech on the state of American business.
Ruckelshaus, famous for his role in the Watergate scandal as the deputy attorney general who resigned instead of following Nixon’s order to fire a special prosecutor, made his mark in politics as a moderate Republican. But he said he’d voted for Obama twice, accusing his own party of abandoning environmental issues.
“They’ve become not only neutral on the subject but antagonistic to it. I think that’s a very bad mistake, myself,” Ruckelshaus said.
When environmentalism was more popular during the Nixon years, he recalled, four executives from the U.S. automobile industry came to Washington to try to stop the Clean Air Act from passing.
“They didn’t get anywhere,” Ruckelshaus said. “They simply misunderstood the strength of public opinion on the issue, and that was true of a lot of industrial leaders at the time.”
Today, he said, special interests are better organized, better able to stop environmental regulations with arguments that jobs are at stake. He said history proved that it was harder to get Americans to accept more regulations when the economy was weak, and he predicted that there’ll be a growing appetite to tackle global warming as the economy improves.
“This is true all over the world,” Ruckelshaus said. “Whenever people have the ability to feed, clothe and shelter themselves, then they begin to worry about some of these more esoteric issues, like the environment and public health.”