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

Clinton Shuffels Environmental Council

Air Date: Week of

Alex van Oss reports from Washington on President Clinton's decision to abolish the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Clinton plans to replace it with a smaller body, which he says will play a stronger role in national policy. The move solidifies Vice President Gore's central role in environmental issues but has left some environmental activists slightly wary.


CURWOOD: This is Living On Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.

In a move aimed at boosting environmental concerns, President Clinton has reorganized the White House environmental staff. He's closed down the CEQ -- the Council on Environmental Quality -- and replaced it with a smaller, but he says, more powerful OEP -- the Office on Environmental Policy. A former Senate aide to Vice President Gore will run the office and sit on key panels, including the National Security Council. Alex van Oss has more from Washington.

VAN OSS: The announcement came in the context of keeping a campaign promise. President Clinton said he would trim his staff by 25 percent, and trim he did, cutting out a number of low-level aides and employees and replacing the 22-year-old Council on Environmental Quality with a proposed Office on Environmental Policy, with half the staff. Sources from environmental groups said -- off the record -- the White House was looking for easy cuts. On the record, they were generally heartened by the naming of Kathleen McGinty to head the new office, a position firmly within the White House loop.

MARA: President Clinton is gonna have to make some tough decisions for the United States, and we're delighted that in those tough decisions the environment is going to be a key consideration.

VAN OSS: Mary Mara is director of Environmental Quality at the National Wildlife Federation. She says Kathleen McGinty is part of the "new order" that solidifies Vice-President Gore's central role in environmental policy. Both McGinty, a lawyer, and EPA's administrator Carol Browner were close aides to the Vice President when he was Senator. The President says that McGinty will participate in the National Security Council, the National Economic Council, and the Domestic Policy Council, and work with Federal agencies. Mary Mara says the new office will have more clout than the current Council on Environmental Quality, which lost influence under Presidents Reagan and Bush.

MARA: We're pleased that President Clinton recognized that CEQ had become an overburdened agency, with not a clear sense of mission anymore, and this new office is a recognition that the White House needs to integrate the environment into all of its activities.

VAN OSS: The question remains how Kathleen McGinty can do more with less: fewer staff, and less experience than past heads of the Council, traditionally confirmed by the Senate. Some question whether Cabinet officials, Federal agencies or, for that matter, the courts will accord the same degree of respect to McGinty. To some, the answer is yes, because of her close ties to the Vice-President, who will likely be her advocate. But that's not enough of an assurance to Michael Deland, the last chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality.

DELAND: She's 29 years old, and will be going up against experienced Cabinet secretaries. But more than background, I don't think it's an issue of her competence, because I know her to be a very competent person, but just an issue of the stature of position, and unfortunately in this town that counts for all too much.

VAN OSS: Deland says that getting rid of the Council on Environmental Quality might endanger one of its primary functions: overseeing the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act. That's the landmark law that requires Environmental Impact Statements for projects involving Federal funds. It's unclear where this function will now reside. And any drift concerning the Environmental Policy Act -- NEPA -- is worrisome to such groups as Defenders of Wildlife, whose president is Rodger Schlickheisen.

SCHLICKHEISEN: The environmental community I think properly regards NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act, as probably the Magna Carta of all our environmental laws. It is the law that says protecting the environment is a matter of fundamental national policy.

VAN OSS: As for the effectiveness of the new arrangement, in making the environment more of a White House priority, Schlickheisen says the jury is still out.

SCHLICKHEISEN: We're inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt, but there are important issues at stake. There are important details that have not been worked out and specified. They'll want to consult with Congress, they'll want to consult with the environmental community, and as a former President said, we'll trust, but verify.

VAN OSS: Rodger Schlickheisen is president of Defenders of Wildlife.

For Living on Earth, this is Alex Van Oss, in Washington.



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