After a turbulent 2 1/2 years as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Christie Whitman announced her resignation Wednesday, leaving behind a controversial record that is certain to become a major issue in the emerging presidential campaign.
The former New Jersey governor said she told President Bush at the White House on Tuesday, “It is time to return to my home and husband in New Jersey, which I love just as you do your home state of Texas.”
Bush called Whitman, 56, a “trusted friend and advisor who has worked closely with me to achieve real and meaningful results to improve our environment.”
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) echoed a common view in Washington when he said Whitman “tried hard, and her heart was in the right place, but she was allowed to do little and lost almost every fight she had within the administration.”
Less charitably, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said, “Even if I was a half-hearted environmentalist, like she is, you’d have to be miserable in that job.”
Among those mentioned as a possible successor are four present or former state officials: former Michigan Gov. John Engler; James M. Seif, former environmental protection secretary of Pennsylvania; Texas Assistant Atty. Gen. Barry McBee, and David B. Struhs, environmental chief for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and the brother-in-law of White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr.
Two other possibilities are Josephine S. Cooper, president and chief executive of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, and Linda Fisher, Whitman’s deputy at the EPA.
From the day Whitman settled into her job at the EPA, she found herself whipsawed by environmentalists and business.
She tried to harness the competing pressures. “Our work has been guided by the strong belief that environmental protection and economic prosperity can and must go hand in hand, that the true measure of the value of any environmental policy is in the environmental results it produces,” she said in her letter of resignation.
But she was unable to satisfy either side for very long.
Reacting to Whitman’s departure, environmentalists said they regretted that she did not accomplish more, while industry representatives said they would miss her as an advocate for economic interests. No one seemed surprised at her departure. Whitman was viewed by environmentalists as better than other, more conservative candidates whom Bush could have chosen.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, said her accomplishments were “small steps forward on a train speeding backward.”
Barely had she assumed her new post in 2001 when she found out how difficult it could be.
After Whitman defended Bush’s campaign commitment to reducing greenhouse-gas-producing carbon dioxide, the president opposed regulating carbon dioxide. He also dropped out of the international climate change negotiations that produced the Kyoto Treaty. A loyal subordinate, Whitman defended the president’s actions, and environmentalists castigated her.
Environmentalists also assailed Whitman for:
* Signing off on changes to clean-air rules that made it easier for industrial plants, refineries, manufacturers and power plants to expand their production capacity without installing the most advanced emissions controls.
* Lessening the EPA’s role in enforcing criminal violations of environmental laws and diverting enforcement officers to such tasks as working as Whitman bodyguards and carrying out homeland-protection assignments.
* Rejecting California’s request for a waiver from a rule that effectively required greater use of ethanol in gasoline and, state officials warned, might have led to higher fuel prices.
* Rescinding a Clinton administration decision to significantly reduce the amount of arsenic allowed in the nation’s drinking water. (In the face of likely congressional intervention, she reinstated the rule.)
On rare occasions, Whitman won unqualified plaudits from environmentalists.
She was praised for completing a proposal by the Clinton administration to cut emissions from diesel trucks and buses and for proposing tough standards for off-road, diesel-powered bulldozers, tractors and other heavy equipment.
In recent interviews, Whitman expressed frustration and fatigue at what she perceived as unfair criticism of the administration’s environmental record and her inability to change public perceptions.
She defended her strategy for loosening environmental regulation of business, saying that if EPA officials “need to hit someone with a 2-by-4 between the eyes,” they are perfectly willing to do so, but adding, “We’re not out to put people out of business.”
She said she regretted that the administration had not been better able to communicate its environmental stance to the public. She accused conservationists of waging an unfair public-relations war against her and her agency.
“The level of venom was beyond what I ever expected,” she said.
Rena Steinzor, director of the University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic and board member for the Center for Progressive Regulation, a group of academics who specialize in health and safety regulations, said Whitman “lacked juice.”
“She could not go into the tank and come out with any policy that was at all progressive and [she] had to apologize for a lot of bad ideas,” Steinzor said.
Carl Pope, the Sierra Club’s executive director, said Whitman’s departure saddened him.
“She came in with a commitment to environmental protection, and I think she, in good faith and against very difficult odds, struggled to carry out that mission and, with the single exception of things related to diesel, was simply not allowed to do her job.”
Jeffrey Marks, director of air quality programs for the National Assn. of Manufacturers, praised Whitman for moving away from “command and control” regulation. “She had a commitment to work with a wide variety of groups to improve the environment without sacrificing economic prosperity.”
Whitman, who preferred to be addressed as “governor” rather than “administrator,” is the latest member of the Bush team to move on. With the administration increasingly focused on the president’s reelection campaign, senior administration officials are expected to stay through next year’s election unless they leave now.
Whitman has been named as a possible challenger to Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) in 2006, although she said she had no plans to again run for office.
One Whitman contribution to the administration is uncontroversial: She presented the president with Barney, the Scottish terrier Bush is often seen carrying on to Air Force One.
Times staff writers James Gerstenzang and Miguel Bustillo contributed to this report.