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If Bush is serious about changing environmental laws, he should do it

The Washington Post

Given that Christine Todd Whitman was not corrupt or dogged by scandal, it is striking that her resignation Wednesday as head of the Environmental Protection Agency provoked so much rejoicing. The Natural Resources Defense Council, a prominent environmental group, declared that Whitman's tenure at EPA has been a disaster for public health and our environment. The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a group that bitterly opposes the environmental movement, declared that her resignation offered the EPA a chance to choose a leader who can bring the agency into the 21st century. While she was in office, Whitman was criticized on the right, on the left, within and outside the administration and Congress.

In large part, Whitman's unpopularity reflected just how black-and-white the environmental debate has become, polarized between environmentalists and the business lobbies that oppose them. There is always one group for whom you can never do enough and another for whom everything you do stands in the way of progress, she told us Wednesday. If everybody is unhappy, that just means you are doing your job. Hinting at the frustrations, she also confessed, however, to having been disappointed by environmentalists' lukewarm reaction to the EPA's decision to put new restrictions on off-road diesel vehicles a few weeks ago. She conceded that the EPA's issues aren't the priority of many in Congress.

But Whitman's unpopularity also reflected the ambiguity of this administration's environmental policy. Soon after taking office, she told an international gathering that President Bush would begin exploring ways to control the carbon-dioxide emissions that have helped create global warming, as he had promised during his campaign. Two weeks later, the president reneged on that promise. In the months that followed, Whitman seemed out of step with a mercurial White House. Important regulatory changes were often issued late in the afternoon on a Friday, without comment from the administrator. Occasionally she or her aides hinted that she was doing her best to fight for environmental causes from within. At times it seemed as if Whitman had been appointed merely to make the Bush administration seem more interested in the environment, or at least in traditional environmentalist solutions, than it was. Yet if she really disagreed with some of the decisions, it seems strange that Whitman stayed in her job as long as she did.

Now, given the built-in handicaps, who will want to replace her? It's hard to imagine anyone with an environmentalist background wanting the job ' and hard to imagine another moderate achieving any more than she did. In fact, the White House ought to take a deep breath and appoint someone whose environmental philosophy closely mirrors that of the president: If the administration does want to alter environmental policy, it should do so in the open and not by stealth, behind the back of ' or in opposition to ' the EPA administrator. The president should argue his case openly, and the issues should be debated loudly, in public rather than behind the scenes.