WITH the launching of the Clinton administration next week, protecting the environment is expected to become a more dominant factor in setting and carrying out federal government policy across all departments and agencies. Environmentalists relish the prospect; others are less elated.
Yet the cold realities of governing could temper the enthusiasm of new administration members, including Vice President-elect Al Gore Jr. and the ardent environmentalists about to head up the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department.
That principle tenet of the Clinton-Gore operation - "The economy, stupid" - will be as relevant after the inauguration as it was before the election.
Jim Maddy, executive director of the League of Conservation Voters, still says however: "I expect them to be receptive to environmental initiatives when they're wrapped up in a convincing way with job creation, deficit reduction, economic growth, and health protection."
Jonathan Adler of the Competitive Enterprise Institute says: "Bill Clinton is politically savvy. He beat Bush on the economy. He doesn't want to let the Republicans do that to him." Of President-elect Clinton's record as a governor, Mr. Adler adds: "He didn't want to crucify Arkansas's economy on a cross of green."
And business will watch to see what is done. While candidate Mr. Clinton talked about moving away from "command and control" regulations to market-based solutions in solving environmental problems, the attitude in much of the business community is, "Oh yeah?" A recent survey of 200 environmental managers from Fortune 500 companies had a majority of 2 to 1 predicting more regulations under the president-elect.
Clinton said a lot on economic matters during the year-long campaign and at his Little Rock, Ark., "summit" after the election. But specific assertions and promises on the environment were relatively few. Yet some early actions can be anticipated. Among them:
* Treating the EPA administrator as Cabinet-rank until Congress officially creates a Secretary of the Environment, as it is expected to do.
* Designating more money for development of renewable energy sources, energy conservation, public transportation, and the promotion of environmental technology in the administration's first budget proposal, due out shortly.
* Renewed United States contributions for United Nations and Planned Parenthood population programs abroad, which the Reagan and Bush administrations opposed.
* A "timber summit" in the Pacific Northwest to settle the fight over industry jobs versus protecting the habitat of endangered and threatened species.
* Signing the biodiversity treaty produced at the "Earth Summit" in Brazil last summer, which President Bush refused to approve. Committing the US to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000, a more ambitious goal than the Earth Summit's relatively weak treaty on climate change.
* Disbanding the Competitiveness Council, which had been run by Vice President Dan Quayle to slow down and in some cases reverse environmental regulation.
* Designating as wilderness the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, which would prevent oil drilling there.
Later in the year will come complicated legislative work on such as issues the reauthorization of laws dealing with clean water, solid waste, wetlands, and endangered species.
One of the toughest will be changes to the Superfund law for cleaning up hazardous-waste sites, on which billions of dollars have been spent. During the campaign Clinton was very critical of the modest results from this program.
Working with the new administration will be new congressional committee chairmen with their own agendas. Among them: Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana at Environment and Public Works, Rep. George Miller (D) California at Natural Resources, and Rep. Gerry Studds (D) of Massachusetts at Merchant Marine and Fisheries.
Also important will be how the other new and returning lawmakers feel about environmental legislation. A Gallup survey in December showed less than half listing the environment as a "very important" issue. Just 5 percent termed it "critical."
In his Earth Day speech last year, Clinton called for "a new covenant for environmental progress."
This was grand rhetoric - music to the ears of environmentalists - but will it mean real change? It may take months or even years to find out. But for now, many are expecting a White House attitude toward environmental protection that is positive and pervasive.