Wilson Juggles Ecology and Jobs : Economy: The governor's focus on employment is colliding with his reputation as an environmentalist. He is taking heat from both sides.


Gov. Pete Wilson's intense focus on creating and saving jobs increasingly is colliding with his longstanding reputation as a Republican concerned about protecting the environment.

Wilson and his aides say the governor is using creative measures to promote economic growth and protect the environment at the same time. The Administration even has been criticized by business interests for being overly concerned about the environment.

But environmentalists say that Wilson and the state agencies under his control frequently are siding with business at the expense of California's natural resources. They fear that the worst is yet to come.

"The environmental community is sort of bracing for an all-out attack on environmental regulation under the guise of spurring economic growth in the state," said Tracy Grubbs, spokeswoman for the League of Conservation Voters. "Wilson at this point seems to be holding the door open to let the assailants rush in."

With California's economy mired in its worst downturn since the Depression--800,000 jobs have disappeared in three years--Wilson's call for sparking private-sector employment is a natural to top his agenda. His stated goal is to streamline the regulatory process so that it works faster and better for the environment and business.

"There will always be the polar extremes," said Douglas Wheeler, Wilson's resources secretary and a former Sierra Club official. "At the same time, most Americans understand that neither policy nor our commonweal is associated with those extremes, and they're looking for pragmatic solutions to these issues."

Wilson has straddled the line between environmental protection and economic growth throughout his political career, from his days as a young state assemblyman through his decade as mayor of San Diego and for eight years in the U.S. Senate.

Although always close to business interests, Wilson was about as "green" as any Republican in the country.

"An environmental ethic will pervade the Wilson Administration from the top down and from the first day," Wilson pledged in one typical piece of campaign literature in 1990.

But upon taking office, Wilson soon found that what he believed would be a short recession and a temporary lull in the growth of the state's revenues turned out to be a prolonged economic slump. By the second year of his Administration, Wilson was talking less about the environment and more about the need to create jobs.

The governor is not the only state politician talking this way. Republican lawmakers are calling for more curbs on environmental regulation. Even Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, perhaps the state's most powerful Democrat, said at his recent economic summit that the time has come to scale back some environmental protection that is a burden to business.

Wilson is leading the way. In disputes on issues ranging from endangered species to toxic wastes and from offshore oil drilling to growth management, Wilson has cited the need to protect jobs as he has sided with business against environmentalists.

Some examples:

* Wilson cited jobs when he applauded the Coastal Commission in January for granting a permit to Chevron Oil and a consortium of other companies to use tankers to carry crude oil along the coast from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles.

Although long an opponent of offshore oil drilling and the use of tankers, Wilson in the Chevron case said the tankering was acceptable because the Coastal Commission had used permission for temporary tankering as a lever to get the oil companies to agree to build a new overland pipeline to carry their product south. The companies, however, were not required to commit upfront to construction of the pipeline, and opponents of the permit said they doubt that the pipeline will be built.

Opponents question Wilson's assumption that without the tankering, oil companies would have shut down their operations.

"He's trying to justify it by using jobs as an excuse," said Linda Krop of the Environmental Defense Center in Santa Barbara. "There will be no jobs created by this permit."

* Wilson used the jobs argument to defend his push for construction of a low-level nuclear waste dump in Ward Valley, in the Mojave Desert near the Colorado River.

Although he pledged last year to allow an administrative judge to hold hearings on the safety of the dump, Wilson backed away from that promise after the dump's builder sued the state to block the review.

In January, just before the Bush Administration left office, Wilson tried to negotiate a last-minute deal to allow the federal government to sell the land for the dump site to California so the project could move ahead. The Clinton Administration scuttled the deal and is reviewing the proposal.

Wilson said he was motivated in part by fear that the lack of a dump would force biotechnology firms to flee the state and take with them thousands of jobs.

"We have all kinds of universities, hospitals, laboratories, and high-tech businesses, particularly those having to do with biotechnology, that are desperately in need of a place to get rid of their low-level radioactive waste," Wilson said.

But Daniel Hirsch, president of the anti-nuclear Committee to Bridge the Gap, contends that, except for two Orange County companies that could and should recycle their waste, nuclear power plants will be the top producer of waste headed for the dump. According to a state Senate report on the issue, universities and hospitals would contribute only a tiny amount of the waste, he said.

* Wilson during the campaign described growth management as "perhaps the single greatest environmental challenge of the '90s." But he was in office for two years before addressing the problems caused by urban sprawl. And then he banished the term growth management in favor of a policy he called "strategic growth"--speeding environmental review and providing more taxpayer dollars for public works projects so that more houses can be built.

"There's the old line about patriotism being the last refuge," said Hirsch. "Now it's jobs. I believe the jobs argument is an excuse to cover an anti-environment policy."

Others see evidence of a pro-business tilt reflected in recent personnel shifts within the Wilson Administration.

One was the resignation of Brian Runkel, a top aide to state Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Jim Strock. Runkel, in an interview, denied that he was asked to resign. But an Administration official said Runkel's departure was in part related to a sense that Cal-EPA was offending the business community.

"There has been some unhappiness in the Administration with the way he's administered his responsibilities," said the source, who asked not to be identified. "There was a certain lack of sensitivity, a lack of an awareness of the Administration's overall agenda. We're trying to create jobs."

In another move, the governor appointed former Republican Assemblyman Tom Mays of Huntington Beach to a new position in the Department of Toxic Substances Control, where the defeated politician was made a liaison to polluters regulated by the state.

The idea, Mays said, is to be more open and helpful to companies that need permits to use or dispose of toxic substances.

"It's something that is going to be really beneficial to the business community," Mays said in an interview before leaving his job to go to work for an insurance company. His job remains vacant.

To serve a similar function at the Department of Fish and Game, Wilson last summer installed John Sullivan, a former business lobbyist and a onetime top official of Gov. George Deukmejian's Business, Housing and Transportation Agency.

An avid fisherman who grew up in the Sierra Nevada, Sullivan, now the department's chief deputy director, said he is proud of his "open-door policy," which he said is aimed at protecting the environment while minimizing delays for business.

"A lot of people in the business community are glad that I'm here," Sullivan said. "They know me and they know that . . . I will listen to just about everybody and anybody."

Sullivan engineered the transfer of the department's former top lawyer, Eugene Taffoli, who had created the department's legal division as a force to do battle with business interests. Taffoli opposed the department's efforts to delegate to local government and the private sector responsibility for protecting endangered species.

Sullivan also had a hand in negotiating a deal with the timber industry to allow logging in a Northern California forest that is home to an endangered sea bird, and he helped ease the way for a Riverside County developer to build 7,700 homes on the edge of a state wildlife preserve in Moreno Valley.

The Administration's critics contend that Sullivan is part of a network of back-door negotiators established to help businesses overcome the objections of scientists in the departments in charge of protecting the environment.

"They've said: 'If you don't like what's happening to you, come see us and we'll solve the problem,' " said Darryl Young, a Sierra Club lobbyist in Sacramento. "Solving the problem means letting the company do whatever it wants."

Despite this criticism, many in business and Legislature say that the Administration is still doing too little to help business.

Republican lawmakers have stacks of file folders filled with letters and documents that they say are evidence of the Administration's uncooperative attitude toward the business community.

"They're not bending over backward for business," said Assemblywoman Doris Allen (R-Cypress). "It's just the opposite."

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