Interview: Christine Todd Whitman

The Monitor talks with the head of the Environmental Protection Agency

On March 13, 2002, the Monitor's Francine Kiefer interviewed Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman in her Washington office. The transcript follows.

MONITOR: I thought since you had just gone through two weeks of hearings that this would be a good chance to stop and look at your role here. I gave them (your press aides) a heads up that I wouldn't delve too deeply into policy because that's everywhere – that's what all the hearings are about, so I'd like to ask you a little bit more about your role in the administration and how that's been going.

A year ago or so the popular line in the media was that you weren't in control and you were a pushover, and all of those not too complimentary terms, but that now you're viewed as a lot stronger, a lot more experienced in the job, but still a lone voice of conscience within the administration. And I wonder how you view that, if you could describe your evolving clout in the administration.

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WHITMAN: First of all, I didn't pay much attention to the stories back then, because they were based on some inaccurate premises, i.e. arsenic, that that was somehow the White House made me do it. No. The White House pushed back when I said I wanted to do it. It's the one place where they did push back, and say, "Do you really want to do this?" My relationship and role with the White House has been what I expected it to be having been a governor and having had a cabinet of my own.

And yeah, it took us a while, because we had the Card memo out–a whole bunch of regulations. That's what we do. We're a regulatory agency. We have more regulations than any other department or agency I think out there to review. So we were scrambling. And we didn't have the team on board.

MONITOR: By the Card memo you meant the review of all regulations (ordered by White House chief of staff Andrew Card)?

WHITMAN: The review of all regulations that were pending. And we just had a slew of them. Getting up to snuff on each one of those, we were reacting for those first six months because we didn't have our full team in place to begin with, and we had so many of these that had enormous impact. I mean, anytime we put out a regulation there, we're requiring someone to spend millions of dollars or change the way they do things, and that has lots of consequences. So yeah, we weren't as smooth an operation as I would have liked us to have been, but, and now we do have the team on board, and now we've dealt with all but two or three of what were pending regulations and those don't have any time frame around them so we're OK. The rest of them...there were court dates that required that we move when we moved. It was a scramble.

So now yeah, we are in sort of a more reasoned, more controlled approach to what we're doing. We're able to put together our priorities. We were able to get brownfields through (legislation to clean up abandoned urban industrial sites), we've gotten the clean skies proposal (a proposal to reduce three serious pollutants by 70 percent), we did all the analysis on that and that took a long time. We got that out there.

MONITOR: But could you speak to the point about being alone in the administration? (Democratic Senator Joseph) Lieberman's view of being the lone voice in the wilderness so to speak.

WHITMAN: That's way overblown. Obviously I am the primary spokesperson for the environment, because I'm the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, just as Spence (Abraham, secretary of the Department of Energy) is the spokesperson for energy because his responsibility is to ensure that there is a continuous, affordable supply of energy in the country. That means that we will perhaps, we do come at issues from slightly different frames of reference, but it doesn't mean that he's anti-environment or that I'm anti-energy. It just simply means that we have different assumptions probably that are behind some of the work that's done and then we have things that we need to work out, as how do we make the policies work for everybody.

Because the issue here is not – I keep hearing it: "Well what battles do you win and what battles do you lose?" and that is so often the case with policymaking but particularly with the environment, that there's an attitude that it's a zero-sum game. Somebody's got to lose for somebody to win, and it just isn't. 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.

MONITOR: But do you think there are certain victories that you've had where you thought, you made the difference and other ones where you thought you've had to compromise or not been quite the way you wanted things to go?

WHITMAN: I think everything has been. It's all an evolutionary process. I am not the only one who speaks for the environment. There are others who have envrionmental concerns, too. They are taken into consideration. There are some times when there are things I think should be done. It's never usually about the end policy, or rarely about the end policy. It's more on how do you get there, where we have the backings and the forthings more, the compromises.

MONITOR: You just mentioned something I wanted to ask about, which is you're not the only voice. Other agencies deal with things whether it's wetlands, or CAFE (fuel efficiency standards), or snowmobiling. Could you give me a sense of how much you interact with the other agency and department heads in the administration on these issues that you feel touch you?

WHITMAN: Ann Veneman, Gale Norton, and I meet regularly. Once a month we have an informal lunch. Just the three of us. And we sit down and talk about issues that are cross cutting. And in fact we're going to go a little bit further than that and have an additional policy lunch to look at the areas where we are each impacting the environment –where there are these good things that are going on, but because they're done in different areas people don't always see the whole. And you lose the forest for the trees.

I've worked very closely with Mel Martinez (secretary for Housing and Urban Development) and we've done something now with housing and Habitat for Humanity and "energy star" and brownfields. We started talking, and we finally got the brownfields legislation up there and we were presuming that we were going to get this thing done, darn it.

We talked about the need to, that this was a perfect opportunity to work closely with housing, with affordable housing, and the department of environmental protection, looking at these brownfield sites, where would they be appropriate for low-income housing and how do we integrate the energy star, the energy efficiency component into these homes, both for the benefit of the environment and for the people who are living there, because often times, and I saw it as a governor, some of the biggest problems, obstacles to people staying in their homes is that they've never had to budget before for the operating costs. And one of the hardest things to control is energy use. So if you're giving people energy efficient homes, good R factor in the walls, the best in windows, that helps them stay in these homes, which is what we want.

We do a lot of talking together. Spence and I talk a lot.

MONITOR: Can I ask you your position on some of the things that are being dealt with in other agencies – specifically CAFE, snowmobiles in Yellowstone, and what you thought about wetlands and the Army Corps of Engineers position on that?

WHITMAN: We have, as you know, gone back and forth with them on that, on the wetlands. We stand committed to protection of the wetlands and we're working our way through. That hasn't even been finalized with the Army Corps. We do feel that there needs to be protective measures and we're working with them on it.

Snowmobiles. Really, the issue was Gale's. What we've been working with them on is making sure that we move toward the four-cycle engines, wherever there are going to be snowmobiles or off-road vehicles, that we have the quieter, more gas-efficient engines, because that will benefit everybody no matter what the policy in the parks was. But as far as the actual utilization in the parks, I'm not going to presume to tell them how to do it, because they've done all the background research, they know the impact.

MONITOR: But you've talked to her about this?

WHITMAN: Yeah, we talk about it.

MONITOR: On CAFE?

WHITMAN: I think we're all in the same place of wanting to have stronger standards and hoping Congress will allow DOT to move forward with those.

MONITOR: Sometimes I have the impression that environmentalists are just thrilled with a decision you make, like GE dredging in the Hudson, and the next day they're absolutely horrified. Usually it's that. Usually, it's the latter. What I sense is kind of a push-me pull-you policy. What's the philosophy that contributes to that impression?

WHITMAN: The philosophy. Again, it gets back to that zero-sum game. A lot of the environmentalists operate from that perspective. That if there's anything that industry's comfortable with, that somehow that has to be bad for the environment – that you can't have a win-win situation here, and that if you don't go 100 percent, then you're not really doing the job.

It's a little bit like some of the push-back that we're hearing on the clear skies proposal. There're some environmental groups that don't want to go near that because it doesn't include carbon.

Now carbon's a very real issue to discuss, and that should be discussed, but should we lose the most far reaching proposal that will impact human health and visibility and get rid of ozone base – because that's what sulfur dioxides, nitrogen oxides, and mercury do. And the president's proposal gets us greater reductions faster than under the current Clean Air Act. In fact the program that he is proposing and he's basing it on is – the cap-and-trade part of this – is on our acid-rain program which has been resoundingly successful. And in fact there were some very interesting quotes of Senator Lieberman's on the importance of cap-and-trade and how it works.

... There's a disconnect here. Part of it is philosophical, and I saw it again as governor, if it's not 100 percent, if you're not going to get all the way there, don't do anything, and that to me makes no...We definitely have a disconnect there, because I believe as long as we are making progress, that that's what our goal should be. We should be constantly showing that we are cleaning the atmosphere, whether it's the air, the water, or protecting the land better.

MONITOR: You just mentioned Joe Lieberman. You're well aware that Lieberman is definitely riding on the environment politically and so is John Kerry (Democratic senator from Massachusetts), and obviously the Democrats want to make an issue of this. My question for you is how concerned are you that this could be perceived as an Achilles' heel for this administration?

WHITMAN: Obviously we want to do everything we can to make sure that it's not. It appears to be an issue that certainly the Dems must be seeing something in their polls that's telling them there's a weakness there. The president's so strong everywhere else that there's got to be someplace that he isn't. And they've done it very well. ...It's not just Democrats. You have environmental groups that have a lot of money available.

The campaign they mounted against arsenic was just incredible. You would have thought (that) I thought everybody had to have their daily dose of arsenic. And what it was was: I had a court ordered deadline coming up in two days, I hadn't had a chance to really look at it, the briefings that I'd gotten on arsenic told me that we needed to do some more research and I just wanted to do some more research.

We never said we'd, we said we'd stick with the timeline, and we never said we were going to roll everything back. And yet everybody presumed, just because you wanted to take another look and have a discussion that that meant we really were about to undermine it.

In fact, the science shows that it was appropriate, but the other parts of the study that we did on cost effectiveness really raised up and reaffirmed the concerns I had about how costly it was going to be to small- and mid-sized water companies and what the potential impact to the people drinking water from those water companies was, and what we needed to do to provide more dollars and more flexibility to help those water companies get there. Because unintended consequences are real.

MONITOR: How come you picked brownfields and clean air for your priorities right now?

WHITMAN: And water. The watershed approach is very important. Because I see my role here as ensuring that when we leave we can say that the nation's air is cleaner, water purer, and land better protected than it was when we started. It was something that I did, had as my mantra as a governor and I still believe it to be important and the president believes it to be important.

MONITOR: Have you been able to take the New Jersey model and transfer it to the federal level? Was that even an intent of yours?

WHITMAN: That wasn't an intent, because one of the things I learned as governor, too, is that every state is very different, and even within states it's very different. Obviously, what we did in this, where we have successes, I can bring those ideas and I can throw them out to the table and if there's something to be looked at that we did in New Jersey that can be crafted or changed in a way that would apply to other places, then great, I certainly will encourage people to look at it. I'm proud of our record, but I wouldn't presume to try to implement the New Jersey program on or force that on anybody.

MONITOR: Can I ask you briefly about the Schaeffer resignation? (Eric Schaeffer, a top EPA enforcement official, resigned last month). Do you think that's damaged the credibility of the EPA? What's the ripple effect of that?

WHITMAN: It's very hard for me to judge. The problem here is we knew that he was leaving. He'd had that job lined up for five weeks anyway, prior to his letter. So I'm not sure what the motivation was for blast-faxing out the resignation letter to a thousand people. I'm sure he's very concerned. I don't question his concern about issues, and we share them. We disagree on his interpretation of what we're trying to do. And that's not unexpected.

There are certainly those within the agency who have that same attitude, that you have to be, that command and control, this is the way we've done it for 32 years, this is the only way to do it. Not even necessarily the best.

What we're saying is, you need to have the enforcement ability, and you need to be able to vigorously enforce, but we can get more if you get the industries and the businesses to the table early on. 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.

This agency, like all of government, gets sometimes very, very hung up in process and uses process as a way to judge success, and what I want to see is progress, and that's why we're starting an environmental report card. We're in the process of working on an environmental report card that we'll be sharing with the public. We will measure ourselves every year.

MONITOR: That's part of the accountability thing from the president?

WHITMAN: It's something we decided to do. They didn't ask us to do this. But we said this is how we think we can best show the public. They have the right to know, of all the things we're demanding of people, is it making a difference, or isn't it?

MONITOR: Do you have a quick one liner for the first year here and how you felt about it?

WHITMAN: Roller coaster? It's definitely been a roller coaster, but satisfying. At the end of the day, these issues are very important so it's worth the ride.

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