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Bush EPA chief shows curiously wide green streak so far

By PHILIP GAILEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001


The Bush administration -- the one in Washington -- is for the most part behaving the way Republicans behave. At the top of President Bush's agenda is an across-the-board tax cut tilted heavily toward the wealthiest Americans (I know, they pay a disproportionate share of taxes). He's also getting even with organized labor, which did its best to elect Al Gore, pushing a missile-defense system that we don't need and can't afford and cutting spending for domestic programs. And he's so civil about it all.

The Republican right is generally pleased with George II, but there's one area where they are beginning to wonder if he made a secret deal with Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader. This White House seems hellbent on opening up Alaska's National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling (after all, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are former oilmen), and no one would accuse Bush of being a tree-hugger. So why are the true believers getting a little nervous? It's because they're wondering if Christine Todd Whitman, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, may turn out to be to environmental protection what David Souter is to the Supreme Court -- a liberal.

The former New Jersey governor is giving the Bush administration an unexpectedly green tint so far. Conservatives paid little attention when Bush tapped her to head the EPA. At the time they had mobilized for more important battles -- the confirmation of John Ashcroft as attorney general and Gale Norton, a protege of James Watt, as secretary of the Interior. Their main complaint about Whitman was that she supported abortion rights, but they figured Bush would keep her on a short leash at the EPA. Now they are beginning to worry that she is taking her environmental responsibilities too seriously. Whitman is speaking of getting the sulfur out of diesel fuel (a Clinton plan), tightening pollution controls on power plants and curbing emissions of carbon dioxide, which scientists say is the main greenhouse gas causing global warming.

It remains to be seen how far the White House will allow Whitman to go down the green path before yanking her chain. And make no mistake about it -- Bush and Cheney will have the final word on environmental policy, not Whitman. If she has an ally within the administration, it probably is Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, the former CEO of Alcoa aluminum. Unlike those Republicans who believe global warming is a figment of Al Gore's imagination, O'Neill takes it seriously. He has called it a potential threat to civilization right up there with nuclear war.

Here's the alarm bell James K. Glassman, a conservative commentator, sounded on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal last week: "At the first meeting of the president's cabinet, Mr. O'Neill passed out copies of a speech he gave at a trade association meeting in 1998 in which he said there were two issues that transcend all others: "One is nuclear holocaust . . . The second is environmental: specifically, the issue of global climate change and the potential of global warming.' In the speech, Mr. O'Neill criticized Kyoto (the 1997 protocol urging the industrialized nations to make drastic cuts in carbon dioxide emissions) -- not because it's too tough but because it's too timid."

Whitman, with O'Neill providing aid and comfort, could turn out to be the greenest Republican since Richard Nixon. Yes, the same Richard Nixon who resigned the presidency in disgrace to avoid impeachment. Watergate crimes and the China opening are part of his legacy. But so are the cleaner air and water we have (though neither is nearly clean enough). It was during his administration that the EPA was created and the Clean Air Act enacted into law. Which makes you wonder: Is there a green streak in George W. Bush that we missed during the campaign? Will he surprise the environmentalists who opposed his presidential candidacy and disappoint the polluters who supported it? Could he become the president who restores Republican credibility on environmental issues?

Probably not, but let's see what happens. As Time magazine reported last week, ". . . the battle for Bush's mind on this issue has barely begun, and the president's old friends in the oil and coal industries -- the sources of the fossil fuels that produce greenhouse gases -- will wield plenty of clout. . . . Bush's program may never be an enviro's dream, but whatever he decides to do to clean the air and fight climate change has a better chance of getting through a Republican Congress than anything Clinton and Gore proposed."

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