The next chief of the Bush Environmental Protection Agency wasn't expected to have more than a dewdrop's chance in hell of widespread acceptance in the disgruntled environmental community. So it came as a surprise on March 4 when the president tapped respected scientist and 24-year EPA veteran Stephen Johnson to captain the agency, and an array of green leaders issued favorable -- even rapturous -- reviews.
"A spectacularly good appointment," said Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group. "We welcome the nomination," said Deb Callahan of the League of Conservation Voters. A "good sign," said Phil Clapp of the National Environmental Trust. "The best we could expect," said Carl Pope of the Sierra Club.
The typically combative leaders of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee also set aside their differences to voice collective support of the nomination. Committee chairman James Inhofe, R-Okla., applauded Johnson for "his hard work in public service," while the committee's minority leader, Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., an outspoken critic of the White House on environmental issues, expressed "hope that this appointment will help repair and restore the credibility of the Bush administration's environmental record." Industry representatives were complimentary as well.
Johnson, who has held a number of leadership positions in EPA's Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances, has spent much of his career implementing the nation's pesticide and toxin laws. He looks like a veritable David Brower (a longtime environmental activist who is now deceased) next to others who were rumored to be on the shortlist for EPA chief, including energy-industry booster Thomas Kuhn, head of the Edison Electric Institute, and Jim Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and an architect of the administration's so-called new environmentalism. Not only is Johnson largely free of industry ties, but he's also the first career employee and scientist ever to be nominated as EPA administrator.
He ascended the agency ladder swiftly under the watch of Carol Browner, who headed the EPA during the Clinton administration. "I promoted him several times, into very important positions in the pesticides and toxics office," Browner told Muckraker. "I don't know if Johnson is a Democrat or Republican, but he's a very green guy, a truly committed environmentalist, from my experience." He didn't shy away from enforcing tough standards, safeguarding public health and taking action against chemical companies when needed, said Browner.
"One is almost left to wonder," she added, "if the Bush administration knew just how deep his commitment is to these issues when they decided that he was their man."
President Bush, for his part, doesn't seem worried. "I've come to know Steve as an innovative problem solver with good judgment and complete integrity," Bush said as he nominated Johnson on March 4. In 2001, the Bush administration honored Johnson with the Presidential Rank Award for his exemplary service at the EPA, and in January of this year named him acting administrator of the agency, after Mike Leavitt was tapped to head the Department of Health and Human Services.
And Johnson seems comfortable with the Bush agenda. As acting administrator, he has defended some of the administration's most controversial environmental proposals, including the Clear Skies bill and major cuts to the EPA's budget. Last month, he trekked to Illinois to stump for Clear Skies, thereby putting pressure on the state's new senator, Democrat Barack Obama, to switch his stance on the bill.
Joan Mulhern, senior attorney at Earthjustice, considers the environmental community's optimism about Johnson's nomination unfounded. "It's hard to imagine that Johnson wasn't vetted for loyalty to the Bush agenda, or that the administration has any intention of bringing on board an independent voice," she told Muckraker. "We've seen no indication that he is inclined to go against the grain."
Mulhern says that Clear Skies will be a real test of Johnson's loyalties. Many public health and environmental advocates have lambasted the bill for what they say is its weak approach to cutting mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. Johnson was working at the Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances when the Clinton administration classified mercury as a hazardous air pollutant and issued an emissions-reductions proposal far more aggressive than that currently proposed by the Bush administration. "The Clear Skies initiative effectively de-lists mercury as a toxin," said Mulhern. "How can a man who has devoted his career to addressing the public health problems posed by toxic substances advocate something like that?"
A former EPA colleague of Johnson's who spoke on condition of anonymity expressed concern that Johnson's support of Clear Skies could sully his hard-earned reputation. "The Steve Johnson I know would absolutely say that mercury is a toxin. But next week if he goes into the Senate confirmation hearings and says that mercury's not a toxin -- whew! I don't envy that position. He may not understand the kind of scrutiny he is walking into."
Eric Schaeffer, former head of the enforcement division at EPA, added that the pesticide and toxins office is known for working collaboratively, rather than tussling, with industry: "They're not often involved in aggressive enforcement, which means Johnson has faced less controversy than, say, those in the air division." Schaeffer speculates that Johnson appeals to the administration in part because he doesn't have "political oomph" like William Reilly, who headed the agency under the senior Bush, or Christine Whitman, the younger Bush's first EPA administrator. Johnson "has credibility but not much political leverage," said Schaeffer, which should make him that much easier to roll over.
Another former EPA colleague, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, added, "I have absolute respect for him, but I don't know if he's bullheaded enough to pose opposition to the Bush folks. He has a go-with-the-flow quality."
The Senate vote on Johnson's appointment is expected to happen in the next month. But Johnson, as acting administrator, will be thrown into the fire before then, with Clear Skies expected to come up for a Senate committee vote any day now (after having been postponed three times), and the administration's contentious mercury rules due on March 15. Beltway scuttlebutt has it that if Johnson signs the mercury rules, at least one senator will hold up his confirmation in protest. Still, in the end, his appointment is all but guaranteed.