WASHINGTON — Early this month, at Washington's clubby Gridiron dinner, Environmental Protection Agency chief Christine Todd Whitman made a crack that caused some Republicans present to groan.
In 2000, Ms. Whitman said, she'd been excited to learn that she was one of George W. Bush's possible picks as vice president. But after the election, when she was offered the EPA job, she discovered that she was on a different list. "It turned out to be the short list of Republicans who care about the environment," she said.
The black-tie Gridiron is supposed to be a satirical, and usually hush-hush, affair. But to chide your own party in front of hundreds of reporters for perceived indifference to clean air and water well, that takes guts, especially when President Bush himself is in the audience.
Then again, Mr. Bush said from the beginning that he wanted someone tough at EPA's helm. And Whitman is nothing if not pugilistic. As a child she owned boxing gloves. As an adult she rose to become governor of New Jersey, a state whose politics can be defined by the phrase "contact sport."
Which makes the events of the past year all the more interesting. Some of the biggest decisions about the environment are now made in the Oval Office, not the EPA, say critics. It was the White House, for instance, that decided to back out of the Kyoto agreement on global warming.
Back to the Gridiron, then. Was Whitman's comment a simple gibe, an example of we-kid-because-we-love? Or was it the jab of a frustrated administrator?
The past year has been a "rollercoaster," Whitman herself admits. But in a recent interview she says that depictions of her differences with the administration have been overblown.
Her relationship with the White House "has been what I expected it to be having been a governor and having had a cabinet of my own," she said.
Any of last year's big-headline environmental controversies might have ended Whitman's career as a federal bureaucrat before it had really begun. But she is still hanging on, after what she calls an initial six months of "scrambling" to comply with a White House-ordered review of last-minute Clinton regulations.
And now, she says, she is actually steering her agency.
"We are in a more reasoned, more controlled approach. We're able to put together our priorities," she said, seated at a lacquered conference table in her ballroom-sized office.. (For complete interview, see csmonitor.com)
Administration critics have cast Whitman as a lone voice of conscience, arguing for environmental protection against a White House fond of oil derricks, coal fields, and gas pipelines. For instance, at a hearing earlier this month, Sen. Joseph Lieberman a potential presidential candidate who sees the environment as an issue on which the administration is vulnerable praised Whitman for waging a "fierce battle" alone.
That's an image Whitman herself rejects. "That's way overblown," she says of Lieberman's description.
Too many people depict environmental policy as a zero-sum game, she says. It's industry vs. the environment, and if one wins, the other must lose.
But reality is more complicated than that. "It is possible, in fact necessary, to have a strong economy to have a healthy environment, because you need the money that the economy throws off to invest in protecting the environment," said Whitman.
Internal policy disputes, she explains, are "rarely" about the goals and much more often about how to reach them.
The EPA chief is the administration's main voice on the environment, but far from the only one, Whitman points out. For that reason she informally lunches once a month with Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman. At the White House, she talks regularly with National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, with whom she has strong personal rapport, as well as with other top advisors.
Whitman is right that plenty happens on the environment outside the EPA. She weighs in but only up to a point. The Army Corps of Engineers, for example, issued new rules in January that overturned its "no net loss" of wetlands policy. Environmentalists are howling and so is Whitman, at a lower decibel level. "We do feel that there needs to be protective measures and we're working with [the Army] on it," Whitman says.
Earlier this month, the Senate took up the issue of fuel efficiency in its energy bill debate. Rather than raise corporate average fuel economy (CAFÉ) standards on their own, Senators voted to send the issue to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for review and action within 15 months. Whitman supports such a review process, but is also for a tougher CAFE standard.
The Interior Department, meanwhile, is considering how much snowmobiling to allow in Yellowstone National Park. Whitman, herself an outdoorsy type who loves her Jersey farm and knows a thing or two about milking cows, has encouraged a move toward quieter, more fuel-efficient four-cycle snowmobile engines. But as far as their use in national parks is concerned, "I'm not going to presume to tell them [Interior] how to do it," she says.
The parquet floor, wood paneling, and plush drapes of Whitman's office may project political clout, but her position today is nothing like it was when she was her own boss in New Jersey.
That state grants far more power to the governorship than most states, much more certainly than Texas. EPA administrator is the job she "took", Whitman once said, not the job she wanted.
After a rough beginning in which she openly clashed with the administration over global warming and was buffeted by criticism of the Bush reversal of Clinton's arsenic rules, Whitman has learned "not to position herself publicly until issues are really thrashed out at the White House," says Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust in Washington.
Whitman's main White House competitor is Vice President Dick Cheney, says Mr. Clapp. It was the vice president who opposed mandatory controls on greenhouse gases, Clapp maintains. And it was the vice president who asked Whitman to review whether old power plants should be required to install costly pollution controls if they update or add capacity a policy known as "new source review."
When asked at a House hearing earlier this month whether the president intended to restore a tax on the oil and chemical industries to finance the greatly depleted Superfund cleanup of toxic waste sites, Whitman answered, "You'd have to ask OMB. Well, the White House." The tax was not included in the president's budget.
Reportedly, the EPA is about to announce the results of its reconsideration of new source review. It is expected to de-emphasize the government lawsuits as an enforcement tool in favor of voluntary compliance, a decision which Clapp describes as "the most serious attack on the Clean Air Act that I have seen in 25 years."
Last month, a top enforcement official at the EPA resigned, warning of the agency's drift from enforcement, and arguing that it has no leverage if it shys away from the courtroom.
But Whitman, in the interview, said litigation is not necessarily the best way to get results.
"If we're not spending our time and money in the courts and with lawyers, we're far better off and we get better results, and that's what we're about is results." On their checklist of battles won and lost, environmentalists point to several Whitman "victories."
One was her decision to make General Electric pay for the dredging of its PCB deposits in the Hudson River. Another was her upholding of a Clinton-era rule to reduce diesel exhaust pollutants.
And of course, Whitman herself talks with pride about three of her priorities: vastly accelerated clean-up of "brownfields," or abandoned urban industrial sites; the administration's "Clear Skies" initiative, which requires emissions reductions of 70 percent for three of the worst air pollutants by 2018; and plans to target watershed areas for improvement.
Yet, environmentalists are grossly disappointed with the Bush administration's policies, if not with Whitman personally.
"I don't want to suggest she's not well-intentioned, or she's not making some effort to push back, but in the end, as we saw in climate change, she's simply being overwhelmed," says Greg Wetstone, director of advocacy for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which recently issued a scathing report on the administration's record.
"What we see across this administration is that big corporations are rewriting the rules themselves," says Mr. Wetstone. He also questions some of Whitman's priorities, like brownfields, calling them peripheral. "We're not moving forward on the really big issues" like global warming, sprawl, farm waste and Gulf of Mexico dead zones, he says.
Whitman's response is that environmentalists always want "100 percent" and when industry gets some of that percentage, the environmentalists chalk it up as defeat. While not happy about the administration's approach, Clapp, at the National Environmental Trust, says squarely that Whitman has turned out to be as advertised:
"I think Governor Whitman is exactly what she bills herself a moderate Republican who cares very much about protecting the environment. Her first choice will always be to see if the market can do the job, but she's also shown herself willing, when that won't work, to take stronger measures."