Utah Governor Leavitt to Take Over EPA

Published October 1, 2003

Three-term Utah Governor Mike Leavitt was nominated to serve as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency by President George W. Bush on August 12. Confirmation hearings were expected to begin in September.

A long-time friend whom Bush first met during governors’ conferences in the 1990s, Leavitt pledged he will bring to EPA more local input regarding federal environmental rules and a reputation for inclusive decision-making.

Leavitt is co-chair of the Western Regional Air Partnership, earning praise for coordinating a regional agreement to improve air quality over national parks in the American West. He also pleased activist groups, and alienated his own party, by spearheading the effort to set aside Utah’s San Rafael Swell as the nation’s largest National Monument. Activist groups also praised his opposition to a plan that would have allowed Goshute Indians to store nuclear waste on reservation territory in Utah.

“I’d call him a real leader in the West to address regional air issues and protect our national parks, and he deserves credit for that,” said Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense.

“He provided good leadership,” said Rick Moore of the Grand Canyon Trust. “He has done an extremely balanced job of trying to handle the tough issues regarding Utah’s public lands.”

Leavitt also has earned Bush’s trust as someone who believes the federal government should cooperate with the states and local communities rather than dictating from Washington. Leavitt has criticized Republicans as well as Democrats who fail to include states and local communities in the federal decision-making process.

“Consensus Builder”

Industry officials applauded the President’s choice. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce praised Leavitt as “a recognized consensus builder” who is “committed to keeping balance in the nation’s environmental policies.”

Thomas Kuhn, president of Edison Electric Institute, described Leavitt’s management style as one that “stresses collaboration of all stakeholders in policymaking, which helps break down barriers to resolving highly charged environmental issues.”

“His genuinely federalist approach will return primary responsibility for environmental law implementation and enforcement back to the individual states–pursuant to programs approved by the EPA–who know their own particular needs and circumstances better than Washington does,” said Jeffrey Marks, director of air quality for the National Association of Manufacturers.

“Governor Leavitt understands history’s immutable lesson that significant environmental improvements occur only when an economy is vital and growing,” Marks added. “Environmental quality and economic prosperity are not in competition with each other, they are complementary–bound at the hip–and must be treated that way for either to be successful.”

The nation’s governors, meeting in Indianapolis at the time of the announcement, offered bipartisan support for their colleague.

“Mike Leavitt is as reasonable and as intelligent a person as you’ll ever meet,” said Democratic Governor Brad Henry of Oklahoma. “I can certainly work with him.”

“We would do whatever we can to get him confirmed,” added Republican Governor Mike Johanns of Nebraska.

Opposition Ahead

Despite the broad praise for Leavitt and his environmental credentials, some activist groups and their congressional allies have indicated they will oppose the nomination and use Leavitt’s confirmation process as a platform for attacking the President’s record on the environment.

“While none of us should be surprised that President Bush has chosen someone who has a record of working to undermine national environmental protections, the truth is that we aren’t going to have a real commitment to the environment until we have a new President,” said Democratic Senator and Presidential hopeful John Kerry of Massachusetts.

Fellow senator and candidate Joe Lieberman (D-Connecticut) also promised to oppose Leavitt, criticizing Leavitt’s management style and environmental credentials. “Despite Governor Leavitt’s recent trumpeting of cooperative management, he was central to the secret negotiations by the state of Utah in two agreements with the Department of the Interior that are dramatically reshaping the management of federal public lands in Utah and throughout the West,” charged Lieberman.

Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah described the opposition of some congressmen as predictable considering the nature of politics. Hatch described the upcoming confirmation process as “a touchy thing because a lot of people knee-jerk environmental issues. They don’t care what’s right or wrong.”

The general bipartisan support for Leavitt was summed up by Utah State University President Stanford Cazier. “He tries to walk the delicate line between where the Sierra Club would like to be and where the Farm Bureau would like to be. He’s a centrist, no doubt about it.”

Western Roots

Leavitt’s insistence on local input into federal issues can be traced to his Western roots. He reflects the sympathies of many Westerners, who feel Eastern politicians who do not understand the Western way of life nevertheless have been imposing on them a big-government agenda they do not support. Leavitt replaces New Jersey’s Christie Whitman and, in tandem with Colorado-native Interior Secretary Gale Norton, ensures strong representation of Western viewpoints on environmental issues.

“Like Whitman, Leavitt is a Republican governor with something of a moderate reputation,” observed Jonathan Adler, assistant professor of law at Case Western University. “Unlike Whitman, however, Leavitt has actually gotten his hands dirty in environmental policy, calling for greater state involvement and authority.

“Some fear Leavitt will be a ‘western Whitman,'” continued Adler. “Perhaps, but there is little doubt Leavitt is a better choice than some others considered for the job. Leavitt clearly recognizes some of the central failings in environmental policy, and he deserves conservative support if he makes a serious effort to clean up EPA.”

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].