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Bush taps gov. of Utah for EPA

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- President Bush tapped Republican Gov. Michael O. Leavitt of Utah, who has fought to limit the reach of federal environmental regulations so they do not infringe on states' rights, to head the Environmental Protection Agency yesterday.

Bush, making the announcement before he appeared at a political fund-raiser in Denver, said Leavitt "has gained wide respect for handling environmental issues in a spirit of openness and bipartisanship."

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"He understands the importance of clear standards in every environmental policy," Bush said. "He respects the ability of state and local governments to meet those standards and rejects the old ways of command and control from above."

If confirmed by the Senate, Leavitt, 52, would replace Christine Todd Whitman, whose resignation in May ended an at times rocky two-year tenure in the nation's top environmental post. Whitman often found herself at odds with administration officials who sided more closely with industries in their bid to make environmental laws, such as the Clean Air Act, more flexible.

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Standing beside Bush yesterday, Leavitt, a three-term governor, said he had carved out a fair approach to the environment in his home state, and he is leaving Utah "a better place" than he found it.

"There is no progress polarizing at the extremes, but there is great progress, there's great environmental progress, when we collaborate in the productive middle," the governor said.

The nation's longest-serving governor, Leavitt sounds a lot like Bush when he speaks about protecting the nation's air, land and water. He and the president, a former Western governor himself, say they seek balance on issues that often stir strong views on both sides.

Bush says environmental laws can unfairly override the interests of state and local governments and become obstacles to utilities and other large industries, which can, the president has insisted, be trusted to find ways to limit pollution if given the chance.

Gearing up for 2004

Leavitt would take the reins of the EPA just as Democrats and liberal-leaning environmental groups are intensifying their attacks on Bush's policies in advance of next year's presidential election. Even before Leavitt was named, Democrats served notice that they planned to make confirmation hearings on Bush's choice to head the EPA a forum for questioning the president's agenda.

Environmental groups reacted harshly to the announcement, portraying Leavitt as an enemy of environmental regulation and pointing out that he headed the National Governors Association when it adopted a policy opposing the Kyoto Protocol on Global Warming. Leavitt did not discuss his personal views on the accord yesterday.

Kyoto, an international accord supported by the Clinton administration but opposed by Bush, requires nations to greatly reduce emissions of carbon dioxide to slow global warming. Bush has argued that the accord would impose a markedly greater economic burden on the United States than on other countries.

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Phil Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, said he expects that Leavitt will continue "this administration's policy of alienating the world" when it comes to combating global warming.

"The administrator of EPA is the nation's principal enforcer of the laws and regulations protecting clean air, clean water and drinking water," Clapp said in a statement. "[Leavitt's] philosophy on all these is: less regulation, no matter what the cost to public health and the environment."

Clean Air Act

One dispute that has thrust the EPA into the political spotlight has been the president's effort to weaken portions of the Clean Air Act. Bush and his advisers believe the law is too complicated and has forced industries -- from oil refineries to electric utilities -- to spend too much money fighting lawsuits and enforcement actions.

The president argues that these industries, if given specific goals to meet in reducing their emissions, should be given a substantial degree of flexibility to find ways to cut pollution. That philosophy is the backbone of Bush's "Clear Skies Initiative," which sets mandatory reductions in pollution over the next decade but lets industry figure out how to achieve them.

'Economic imperative'

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Earlier yesterday, Bush toured regions of Arizona laid waste by wildfires and promoted his "Healthy Forests Initiative" to reduce the risk of devastating blazes by thinning trees, a plan some environmentalists say would damage woodlands.

Leavitt, in thanking the president for naming him, said he recognizes "an inherent human responsibility to care for the Earth."

But, he added, "there's also an economic imperative that we're dealing with in a global economy to do it less expensively."

Leavitt says he has been a determined moderate environmental voice in Utah. His critics disagree. Environmentalists have attacked him, for example, when he has sought to give counties in Utah more decision-making power over roads that cut through protected federal lands.

On Capitol Hill

News of Leavitt's appointment was greeted with surprise on Capitol Hill, which is almost devoid of lawmakers because they are on their August vacation. Although the Utah governor's name has been mentioned, aides said, speculation in Congress has focused on Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, who previously represented his state in the Senate and was expected to be embraced easily by a broad coalition of lawmakers who are familiar with his positions.

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Rep. Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, Republican chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, called Leavitt an "excellent choice" for the post. "A hallmark of Mike Leavitt's service as governor has been an emphasis on environmental stewardship and of seeking collaborative solutions to complex environmental problems," Tauzin said in a statement.

Independent Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont, senior minority member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, was more restrained, saying, "I look forward to learning more about Governor Leavitt and his environmental record during the upcoming confirmation hearing."

Bruce Josten, top lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, called Leavitt a "recognized consensus-builder," noting his role as an advocate for Western air quality, as host to the Winter Olympics last year and as head of the National Governors Association, which he led from 1999 to 2000.

"The EPA deals with divisive issues, and President Bush's nomination shows he is committed to keeping balance in the nation's environmental policies," Josten said.


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