Washington – Mike Leavitt’s (search) philosophy of consensus building will soon come under scrutiny when the Senate holds confirmation hearings this month on the Utah governor's nomination to become administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (search).
President Bush nominated Leavitt on Aug. 11. EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman (search) left the agency in June after a difficult 2-½ year tenure there.
Leavitt, a moderate, pro-business Republican who befriended Bush when the president was governor of Texas, sums up his political philosophy in one word — “enlibra.”
If it sounds unfamiliar, it should. Leavitt invented the Latin-rooted word and says it means "balance" and "moving towards common ground."
“At the heart of my environmental policy are two principles: balance and stewardship.... When only the extremes are represented, the parties cling immovably to their positions, producing either gridlock or an extreme policy if one side or the other musters political power. Neither one is a satisfactory outcome,” Leavitt wrote in a 1998 paper on the environment for the Western Governors Association (search).
“In its ideal, 'enlibra' would be a collaborative process by which all the stakeholders are involved," Dan McCool, a professor of political science at the University of Utah, told Foxnews.com. "In some cases, it does indeed work. There are other more intractable cases."
Environmental groups have slammed Leavitt for his record in Utah, saying his idea of an "extremist" is anyone who wants to increase environmental protections. They also complain that environmentalists are excluded from Leavitt's consensus-building tasks.
“Gov. Leavitt is a moderate-sounding wolf in sheep's clothing. He's mastered the rhetoric of ‘balance’ and ‘cooperation,’ but in the Bush administration those are code words for more mining, drilling and pollution. Judging by his record, Leavitt should fit right in with this approach,” read a statement issued by Friends of the Earth (search) after Bush announced Leavitt's nomination.
In a similar tone, the Sierra Club (search) also opposed Leavitt's nomination, citing his “anti-environmental record as governor of Utah.”
But supporters, including many of his bipartisan colleagues in the National Governors Association, describe Leavitt’s environmental record in Utah as middle-of-the-road. He vigorously opposed efforts to allow nuclear waste to be stored on a Utah Indian reservation. However, he angered environmentalists by backing the multimillion-dollar Legacy Highway to the growing suburbs north of Salt Lake City.
The highway would cross over fragile wetlands bordering on the Great Salt Lake. Although millions of dollars have already been spent on the highway, construction was halted by a federal appeals court last year when it ruled inadequate an impact study it ordered on potential damage to the environment.
Leavitt’s record of enforcing environmental regulations has been “reasonably good,” McCool said, who added that as a moderate in a very anti-environmental Utah Republican Party, Leavitt shouldn't be mistaken as overly pro-environment.
“The real test is whether the Leavitt administration [at EPA] will be open and collaborative or will it follow the pattern of ... cutting backroom deals. I think the environmentalists underestimate him,” McCool said.
“He is every bit the consensus builder that the characterizations suggest he is,” said Michael Lyons, a political science professor at Utah State University.
Leavitt's reputation as a moderate who seeks to work with all the stakeholders could bolster Bush’s environmental credentials. The environment as a political issue generally favors Democrats, and Bush's environmental policies have frequently come under fire from Democratic Party members.
Saying Bush has the "worst environmental record in history," presidential candidate Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut promised careful questioning at Leavitt's confirmation hearing, already expected to be a forum for Senate Democrats to attack the administration’s environmental record.
“The American people deserve to know whether Gov. Leavitt shares the same disregard for clean air, clean water, land conservation and global warming as the president,” Lieberman said.
Although Whitman fiercely denied any conflicts with Bush, even supporting him after their differences on the Kyoto global warming treaty and Clean Air Act (search) provisions became public, it was widely reported that frustration over White House intervention spurred her to leave her position.
Leavitt is expected to have a closer relationship with the president, with whom he shares many perspectives.
“I think [Leavitt] is fiercely loyal to the president,” Lyons said. “He’s not going to be undermining the White House or perceived to do so. Christine Whitman had some obvious conflicts with the president, and Leavitt is going to be a team player.”
The next EPA administrator will have to decide how to enforce pollution regulations such as a highly controversial Clean Air Act rule implemented by EPA last week. The new chief will also be in the middle of a battle between Bush and environmentalists over energy and land priorities in the West.
Leavitt, a westerner like other Bush appointees Interior Secretary Gale Norton, a former Colorado attorney general, and Kathleen Clarke, head of the Bureau of Land Management and previously Leavitt’s director of natural resources in Utah, will have a loud voice in the debate over what to do with oil and gas reserves that lie on federal lands mainly in the West.
Leavitt “would be strongly in favor of oil and gas exploration,” McCool surmised.
Like Bush, Norton and Clarke, Leavitt believes that states and local communities should have more input in how they comply with federal environmental standards.
“He rejects the old ways of command and control from above,” Bush said of Leavitt.
Predicting how Leavitt would act as EPA administrator, Lyons said, “He’s pro-business. He is generally, I think, going to be in favor of development of resources. By the same token, I think he is going to try to curtail destructive consequences and find that elusive middle ground.”