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Bush Environment Jobs Are Skewed to Business

TIMES STAFF WRITER

President Bush’s roster of nominees for key environmental policy jobs is brimming with lawyers and lobbyists for the very industries these officials will oversee in their government posts.

Not surprisingly, Bush’s lineup differs greatly from former President Clinton’s senior regulatory team, which featured a number of prominent environmentalists. As a result, many of Bush’s choices have been greeted warmly by conservative activists but eyed warily by environmental organizations.

The appointments reflect the administration’s overall approach to federal regulation and a contrast with that of the president’s father, former President George Bush.

In 1989, the elder Bush chose an environmentalist, William K. Reilly, to head the Environmental Protection Agency and filled other regulatory jobs with experts from academia, environmental groups and state pollution agencies, as well as from industry.

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The younger Bush appears to be embracing, instead, the practice of his father’s conservative predecessor, Ronald Reagan, who tended to fill regulatory jobs with representatives of the businesses that are being regulated. Some examples of Bush’s appointees:

The deputy administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, Linda Fisher, was a chief lobbyist and political fund-raising coordinator for Monsanto Co., a biochemical and pesticide producer.

The nominee for assistant secretary of Agriculture with responsibility for national forests, Mark Rey, was a top timber industry lobbyist.

The nominee for deputy Interior secretary, Steven Griles, is a leading lobbyist for oil, gas, coal and other industries that want increased access to resources on public lands.

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The Interior secretary’s two newly named envoys to Alaska are the top lobbyist for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and a former state lawmaker who has championed the same cause.

And the nominee for the Justice Department’s top job enforcing environmental and natural resource laws, Tom Sansonetti, is a Republican conservative activist and Wyoming lawyer who has lobbied in Washington on behalf of coal mining operations and other industries seeking access to public lands.

Bush’s environmental appointments reflect his strong commitment to business and industry and his determination to reduce the burden of government regulations. His supporters within the Republican Party, including the donors who helped finance his presidential campaign, tend to see him as a true conservative who resembles Reagan more than Bush’s father.

Supporters and opponents of the administration’s environmental policies say the background of Bush’s appointees will have far-reaching effects. In many agencies, the “deputy” secretary or administrator is the No. 2 official with responsibility for day-to-day operations. Not only do these officials influence the development of new laws and regulations, but they also make many behind-the-scenes decisions involving protection of air and water and development of coal, gas, oil and other resources on federal lands.

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“I expect more extraction and more production, combined with environmental protection,” said Michael Hardiman, legislative director of the American Conservative Union, a longtime Washington lobbying group. “We have people with experience in production of the resources we all use every day. This adds a new dimension [to the policy] compared to the Clinton team, which was one-sided protectionist extremism.”

Jay Watson of the Wilderness Society, a national environmental group that focuses on protecting public lands, fears just that.

“Sub-Cabinet officials are tremendously powerful in the policy arena,” said Watson, who represents the group in California. “The folks who have been named have a real mission and a real agenda to emphasize resource exploitation and development on America’s public lands at the expense of their natural integrity.”

There is much at stake. Sansonetti, the nominee for Justice Department environmental chief, would be responsible for reviewing Clean Air Act enforcement actions against some of the nation’s biggest polluters: aging gasoline refineries and coal-fired power plants.

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Rey, the assistant Agriculture secretary nominee, would have the final say in the administration on the Sierra Nevada conservation framework, a proposal for managing 11 national forests as one unit.

“This is a very important decision for California that will land on Mark Rey’s desk,” Watson said.

Jeffrey Holmstead, the nominee for assistant EPA administrator for clean air programs, would have influence over key decisions outlined in the administration’s energy plan, ranging from vehicle fuel efficiency standards to power plant and refinery emissions.

Holmstead was involved in the crafting of clean air regulations under the first Bush White House. Since then, as an attorney for the influential Washington law firm of Latham & Watkins, he has represented the interests of pesticide producers in implementation of food quality legislation and trade associations in negotiations with EPA on various regulations.

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Environmentalists warn that Holmstead worked behind the scenes to weaken clean air regulations when he was with the White House counsel’s office and sought to weaken government regulations once in private practice.

But William Rosenberg, who was the EPA’s assistant administrator for air programs at the time, said he does not believe Holmstead was part of the extreme anti-regulation contingent of the previous Bush White House, as some environmentalists have claimed.

“I think they’re painting with a broad brush without looking carefully at what he did and didn’t do,” said Rosenberg, who is well regarded by environmentalists. “Based on what I have seen, he’s a fine lawyer and has potential to be a fine assistant administrator.”

However, Rosenberg said he believes Holmstead faces new hurdles with this administration, noting that the first Bush White House was more committed to making significant progress on the environment.

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“He comes into the job with a White House that is skeptical about EPA rather than proactive,” Rosenberg said.

EPA Administrator Christie Whitman stressed that the experience Holmstead and other members of her team have had representing regulated industries will give them insight into innovative ways to prod industry to cut pollution.

“What I want to do is get people who understand how the real world works so we can continue to move forward to cleaner air and cleaner water,” she said in an interview.

Whitman said more progress can be made toward meeting those goals “if we can do it through voluntary compliance rather than enforcement.”

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Holmstead is one of several second-tier appointees who have previous government experience during Republican administrations. Griles was a senior Interior Department appointee for eight years under former presidents Reagan and Bush, Fisher was an assistant EPA administrator at the same time, and Sansonetti was Interior Department solicitor under Reagan.

Several members of the Bush environmental team have sterling conservative credentials. Lynn Scarlett, named assistant Interior secretary for policy, management and budget, was president of the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank. Sansonetti has been a member of the Federalist Society, an influential conservative legal networking group, and has chaired its subcommittee on endangered species.

Current and former sub-Cabinet appointees defended the practice of choosing officials with backgrounds in regulated industries. They pointed out that Democratic administrations have engaged in the practice too. For example, the first deputy EPA administrator in the Clinton administration was a lawyer and lobbyist for the law firm that Holmstead just left.

“There are very strong rules that govern what you can do and not do when you come into government from a company,” said Fisher. “The ethics rules are there to protect the potential for real conflict of interests.”

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In her case, Fisher said she will recuse herself from issues dealing with pesticides because of her job with Monsanto.

Fisher said she does not believe she will have any trouble switching from her role as corporate lobbyist and fund-raiser to government regulator, citing her EPA background.

“There were people in Monsanto who thought maybe I was looking too much out for EPA when we had meetings on the environment,” she said.

Terry Davies, a Democrat who was an assistant EPA administrator under Reilly, said that merely working for regulated industries should not disqualify people for environmental positions.

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But actively trying to undermine laws and regulations is a different story, he said, conceding there is a lot of gray area.

“It would be much simpler if we could say nobody from a corporate background can work for government, but the result would be the quality of people you could get in those jobs would be much lower, and they would start their jobs handicapped because of the lack of experiences,” said Davies, who has never worked for industry.

The Bush environmental team is striking not so much because some of its members were lawyers or lobbyists for regulated industries but because so many of them were.

“It’s not just the fox guarding the chicken coops,” said Dave Alberswerth of the Wilderness Society. “The chickens are gone. It’s just foxes in this administration.”

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Fisher, who is involved in the selection process, does not dispute that the new administration has fewer representatives from public interest groups and academia than the previous Bush administration. She said she has not interviewed or seen resumes of people from environmental groups. “I don’t even think we’ve had candidates from there,” she acknowledged.

Although a majority of key second-tier appointments have served as lawyers or lobbyists for regulated industries, there are exceptions. Some career government employees, both state and federal, have landed senior jobs. For example, the new Forest Service chief, Dale Bosworth, is a career forest manager, and Steve Johnson, EPA’s assistant administrator for prevention, pesticides and toxic substances, is a career agency official.

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