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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Bush’s Pick

Air Date: Week of

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Last month, President Bush nominated Utah Governor Mike Leavitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency. The Republican governor is seen as a moderate who tries to find the middle ground to resolve complex environmental issues. But environmental groups say Leavitt is pro-business and doesn t always consult them on important issues. Jenny Brundin of member station KUER has this profile of Governor Mike Leavitt.



CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

Senate Democrats are hoping to turn upcoming confirmation hearings for a new administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency into a critical review of the White House itself. The environment is shaping up to be a key issue for the presidential campaign. So that means the EPA nominee Utah Governor Mike Leavitt will likely face tougher questions and stiffer opposition than his record might otherwise engender. From Salt Lake City, Jenny Brundin of member station KUER has this profile of the man nominated to protect our nation’s environment.

(Photo: National Governors Association)   

BRUNDIN: Utah governor Mike Leavitt has a simple yarn that neatly sums up his views on the environment. It’s his story of seeing two very different bumper stickers in the same part of town.

LEAVITT: The first one said “Earth first - we’ll mine the other planets later” and the second one said “Save the earth, kill yourself.” I’m thinking somewhere in between those two bumper stickers is where the vast majority of people have their hearts and minds.

BRUNDIN: The 52-year old Republican governor’s middle-of-the-road approach to enviromental issues were shaped in large measure by his roots.


BRUNDIN: Leavitt grew up in rural southern Utah, where ranchers and farmers scrape out a living amidst stunning scenery: fragrant sagebrush, redrock canyons, and creamy buttes. The land is also home to bitter environmental disputes, with locals eager to mine, recreate, and ranch the land and conservationists pushing wilderness designation. After years of studying these contentious debates, Leavitt, along with former Oregon governor Democrat John Kitzhaber, developed a new approach to solving environmental problems.

LEAVITT: It’s called en libra. It’s a Latin word. It means to move towards balance.

BRUNDIN: Mike Leavitt fervently believes the middle ground is where solutions lie. His philosophy of en libra was later adopted by the Western Governors Association. In a press conference with President Bush last month, Leavitt promised to bring these ideas to the national stage.

LEAVITT: To me there is an inherent human responsible to care for the earth. But there’s also an economic imperative that we’re dealing with in a global economy to do it less expensively and Mr. President, it’s your commitment to both that has enlisted me to this cause.

[SOUND OF PROTEST – CHANTING – “Western governors, we bring you greetings. Put an end to secret meetings….” ]

BRUNDIN: Last year, environmentalists demonstrated to protest en libra. The Sierra Club’s Lawson Legate says Leavitt doesn’t practice the princples of en libra, which stress negoti ation not litigation, collaboration, not confrontation.

LEGATE: His true style is to make an announcement – I’ve just cut a deal, as he’s cut a deal with the Secretary of the Interior recently to halt further wilderness studies in Utah – behind closed doors, and then he calls a meeting and says, here, I’d like to tell you what I did. That’s his idea of involvement. He says collaboration and not confrontation but he truly does not collaborate.

BRUNDIN: Legate also points to the Legacy Highway – a proposal for a 14-mile corridor along the shores of the Great Salt Lake, cutting through fragile wetlands. The plan is being championed by Leavitt, but environmental groups charge that they weren’t consulted, nor were alternatives to the highway considered, like mass transit. Larry Young is the executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

YOUNG: A guy who wants to slab asphalt down the middle of wetlands for the Great Salt Lake, you got to be nervous about that. A person who talks about how he was part of a multi-state effort to clean the haze up over the Grand Canyon, but we still look out over our urban valleys along the Wasatch Front and see pollution, haze, day in, day out - you wonder how serious he’s going to be about confronting the issue of air pollution.

BRUNDIN: Environmentalists recall that in 1997, Leavitt opposed tightening federal air quality standards, asking instead for more study. But Diane Neilsen, who heads the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, says Utah meets federal air quality standards now. That was not the case at the beginning of Leavitt’s administration. Utah counties developed car emissions testing programs to meet the standard—

NEILSEN: --without all the flap that occurred at the national level.

BRUNDIN: She says Leavitt’s en libra principle of “national standards, neighborhood solutions” made the task easier.

NEILSEN: We recognize the value of a national standard. But we recognize that a one size fits all regulation doesn’t work. Pollution looks different here in Utah than it does in New Jersey and that means we need different strategies.

BRUNDIN: Neilsen and Governor Leavitt also count among his environmental successes the regional plan to clean up air over southwest; the preservation of 35,000 acres of open space; more money for state parks and trails, and Envision Utah, the nation’s largest “smart growth” partnership. And though he can’t count it as a victory yet, Leavitt – in this 2002 state of the state address – seems, perhaps, most proud of this achievement.:

LEAVITT: I’d like to point out that it’s been another year – and not a single spent nuclear fuel rod has been moved to Utah – not now, not later, not ever! [APPLAUSE]

BRUNDIN: Leavitt has so far successfully foiled attempts to store the nation’s supply of nuclear fuel rods in an above-ground facility west of Salt Lake City. Environmentalists applaud him for this, but they uniformly agree that Utah regulators go easy on polluters.


BRUNDIN: For years, Magcorps, a magnesium refinery located here on the southwest shore of the Great Salt Lake, topped the list as the nation’s dirtiest polluter. But environmentalists say state regulators looked the other way. Diane Neilsen says there wasn’t a federal standard for burning magnesium that the state could model.

NEILSEN: We didn’t have the resources. It would have taken a lot of money and technical expertise to be able to do the research to establish that standard, and we just didn’t have the wherewithal to do that.

WARD: What I hear the Leavitt administration saying is that in the absence of clear federal law telling them what to do, they don’t know what to do on their own.

BRUNDIN: Environmentalist Chip Ward says similar plants in Norway, Israel and elsewhere had standards and were burning magnesium much more cleanly. Despite that, it still took years of citizen pressure on the state to make Magcorps invest in the technology that eventually cut emissions by 90 percent.

LEAVITT: [Talking with staff in limousine] My guess is we’ll go through most of the politics of the day, I don’t know of anything that hasn’t be already discussed…

BRUNDIN: As he flies from appointment to press conference in his limousine, Mike Leavitt is his usual relaxed self. His popularity ratings averaged 75 percent during his 11 years in office. But it’s likely he’ll face a much rockier road in Washington, as did his predecessor Christie Todd Whitman. How much flexibility Leavitt would have in a new post depends largely on how his views square with two men, says University of Utah law professor Bob Adler. Every major environmental rule and regulation, Adler says, must be approved by the Office of Management and Budget, headed up by Joshua Bolten. And of course, approved by President Bush.

ADLER: If Governor Leavitt is appointed or is confirmed and sees eye to eye with the two of them, he’ll probably get along better than Governor Whitman. If he does want to exert his own policies and his own sense of a different environmental vision, he’ll find himself in the same place that Governor Whitman was in.

BRUNDIN: Governor Leavitt’s confirmation hearings before a U.S. Senate committere could begin later as early as this month. For Living on Earth, I’m Jenny Brundin in Salt Lake City, Utah.

[MUSIC: The Uplifters “Inspired So” Burning Bush]



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