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The verdict of history sometimes takes centuries. The verdict on George W. Bush as the nation's environmental steward has already been written in stone. No president has mounted a more sustained and deliberate assault on the nation's environment. No president has acted with more solicitude toward polluting industries. Assaulting the environment across a broad front, the Bush administration has promoted and implemented more than 400 measures that eviscerate 30 years of environmental policy. After years of denial, the president recently acknowledged the potentially catastrophic threat of global warming, but the words have no more meaning than the promise to rebuild New Orleans "better than ever."
Most insidiously, the president has put representatives of polluting industries or environmental skeptics in charge of virtually all the agencies responsible for protecting America from pollution. Some egregious officials are now gone, often returning to the private sector whose interests they served. But the administrators who remain in place continue to carry the torch—people such as Mark Rey, a timber-industry lobbyist appointed to oversee the U.S. Forest Service; Rejane "Johnnie" Burton, at Interior, a former oil-and-gas-company executive in Wyoming, who has failed to collect billions on leases from oil companies active in the Gulf of Mexico; and Elizabeth Stolpe, a former lobbyist for one of the nation's worst polluters, Koch Industries, who is an associate director (for toxics and environmental protection) at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
This trend is consistent across all of the departments of government that pertain to the environment: the Department of Commerce (which regulates fisheries); the Departments of Agriculture, Energy, and the Interior; the E.P.A.; and even the relevant divisions of the Justice Department. More than 100 representatives from polluting industries occupy key spots at the federal agencies that regulate environmental quality. The revolving door between business and government—turning the regulated into the regulators—has never before spun so fast. And as a consequence environmental protection has been advancing backward on a broad front.
Consider Jeffrey Holmstead, who for four years was a top official in the E.P.A.'s Office of Air and Radiation. Before going to the E.P.A., Holmstead had worked for the law firm Latham & Watkins and represented one of the nation's largest plywood producers, seeking to diminish pollution controls. In 2004, Holmstead ushered through new regulations exempting wood-products manufacturers from air-pollution rules governing formaldehyde. According to the Los Angeles Times, Holmstead's new rule "relied on a risk assessment generated by a chemical industry-funded think tank, and a novel legal approach recommended by a timber industry lawyer."
Or consider the career of Camden Toohey, who in 2001 was appointed to be the special assistant for Alaska by Gale Norton, the secretary of the interior from 2001 to 2006. Toohey, who was previously the executive director of Arctic Power, the chief lobbying group in the campaign to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, oversaw Interior's Alaska operations until resigning, in January of 2006, to take a job at Shell, where Norton now serves as senior legal adviser.
And then there is Charles Lambert, a former lobbyist for the beef industry, now a deputy undersecretary at the Department of Agriculture responsible for marketing and regulatory programs. In June 2004, The Denver Post reported on an exchange between Lambert and Representative Joe Baca, a California Democrat, at a hearing on the issue of mad-cow disease:
"Is there a possibility that [the disease] could get through?" …
Reports in The New York Times and on 60 Minutes have highlighted the case of Phillip Cooney, who was the chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality. His job was to advise the president on the environmental implications of decisions that he makes. Cooney's previous job had been as the chief lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute. His preoccupation during his four-year White House stint, according to news accounts, was combing scientific documents issued by the various federal agencies in order to remove damaging statements about the oil industry and the coal industry. He suppressed or altered several major studies on global warming in order to protect the interests of his former clients. After the Times revealed the alterations, in 2005, Cooney left his job and went to work for ExxonMobil.
It can be a fine thing to have businesspeople in government, when the objective is to recruit competence and expertise. But high-ranking officials such as the ones cited here, and scores of others, have entered government service not to serve the public interest but rather to subvert the very laws they are charged with enforcing.
Under the Bush administration, the big polluters, as the author and activist Jim Hightower has pointed out, have eliminated the middleman. "The corporations don't have to lobby the government any more. They are the government."
The Top 12
Ann Klee (2001–6), general counsel, E.P.A.; counselor to Interior secretary Gale Norton
J. Steven Griles (2001–4), deputy secretary, Department of the Interior
Lynn Scarlett (2001–present), assistant secretary, then deputy secretary, Department of the Interior
Gale Norton (2001–6), secretary, Department of the Interior
Richard Stickler (2006–present), assistant secretary, Mine Safety and Health Administration
William Wehrum (2005–present), acting assistant administrator, E.P.A.
James Connaughton (2001–present), chairman, Council on Environmental Quality
Jeffrey D. Jarrett (2006–7), assistant secretary, Department of Energy
Francis S. Blake (2001–2), deputy secretary, Department of Energy
William Gerry Myers III (2001–3), solicitor, Department of the Interior
Rebecca W. Watson (2001–5), assistant secretary, Department of the Interior
Thomas Sansonetti (2001–5), assistant attorney general, Department of Justice
Additional reporting by Brendan DeMelle.
Environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, a non-governmental organization that promotes clean water throughout the world.