Stephen Johnson may be an expert on toxic substances and hazardous wastes. But as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, this trained scientist can only hope that his 24 years as an EPA professional will have prepared him for the murky, gritty world of Washington politics.
Over its 35-year history, the agency has become one of the tallest lightning rods in federal government. Environmentalists see it as their best official friend - when they're not suing it, that is. Some industrialists, builders, and farmers deride it as one of the greatest impediments to economic development and the free market. EPA bureaucrats - especially those who write the regulations meant to define and enforce such fundamental US environmental laws as the Clean Air and Clean Water acts - have been likened to the Gestapo. The current chair of the Senate environment committee has said the agency should be done away with.
Into this political thicket comes Mr. Johnson, the first EPA administrator to rise from the ranks of agency professionals. He's a political appointee requiring Senate confirmation; but he's neither a politician (Michael Leavitt and Christine Todd Whitman, his two immediate predecessors in the Bush administration, had been governors) nor a state agency official seen as an activist (like Carol Browner, Bill Clinton's EPA chief).
The list of nasty stuff he's in charge of limiting in the nation's air, water, and soil is lengthy: soot, smog, and mercury in the atmosphere; toxic residue from industrial plants, mining, power production, and factory farms - some of it so vast that particularly poisonous areas have been designated Superfund sites; greenhouse gases suspected of changing Earth's climate; neurotoxins, carcinogens, and other poisons that are especially scary in an age of international terrorism.
Meanwhile, President Bush's "Clear Skies" legislation meant to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and mercury - his top environmental priority - is hung up in the US Senate. Two Republican governors, George Pataki of New York and Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, are concerned that it doesn't go far enough, and 10 state attorneys general are publicly opposing it.
On a personal level, Johnson starts with a reputation that seems universally good.
Scott Segal of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, whose members include major power plants, calls the EPA nominee "a capable leader ... a respected, seasoned professional."
Ken Cook of the advocacy organization Environmental Working Group says Johnson is "a spectacularly good appointment ... known for his intellectual rigor, knowledge of environmental issues, and his fairness."
Other environmental groups, as well as industry representatives, also praise him.
But the problem, as many environmentalists see it, is that it's the White House, not the EPA administrator, that makes and directs policy. And that the overall philosophy there has been to exchange enforcement for volunteer efforts by polluters, together with skepticism about the extent and nature of pollution problems - especially on global warming.
Early in her tenure, Ms. Whitman had emphasized Mr. Bush's campaign assertion that carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, should be controlled and reduced. But White House officials soon backed away from that pledge, and the administration declined to join the Kyoto treaty.
Judging by her recent book, "It's My Party, Too: The Battle for the Heart of the GOP and the Future of America," Whitman apparently left in frustration over the more conservative wing of the Republican Party that now rules the White House and Congress.
"There's this attitude that if ... you believe that government has a role to play in environmental protection, you're not a good Republican," she told the Monitor earlier this year.
The environment is a tricky political issue. When asked, most people describe themselves as wanting cleaner air and water - even if that means some economic cost. But it's seldom a top concern at election time, and Americans buy a lot more pollution-prone SUV's than they do gas-sipping hybrid vehicles.
Meanwhile, state governments have been moving faster than Uncle Sam on environmental protection. And while the Bush administration refuses to join the international Kyoto effort on climate change, businesses around the country already are headed in that direction.
Former Secretary of State James Baker, long-time adviser to President Bush and his father the former president, last week told a gathering in Houston that "when you have energy companies like Shell and British Petroleum ... saying there is a problem with excess carbon-dioxide emission, I think we ought to listen."
Into this mixed political picture, Stephen Johnson now proceeds, heading a high-visibility agency with 18,000 employees, an $8 billion budget, and decisions that can affect the health and safety of future generations. It is, says Sen. James Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma, who chairs the environment Committee, "one of the toughest jobs in the federal government."