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Surveying The Wreckage At Epa

This came out in early December, but John Shiffman and John Sullivan's long Philadelphia Inquirer profile of Stephen Johnson, Bush's last (and perhaps most controversial) EPA head, is absolutely fantastic. There's plenty of good dirt in here: an in-depth look at how Johnson overruled his staff scientists and denied California's request to tighten its own tailpipe-emission rules; an explanation of how Johnson, a relatively obscure EPA technocrat, became a top political appointee in the first place (credit goes to a Kentucky lobbyist with ties to Karl Rove); and even a look at his creationist views. But this tidbit sums things up nicely:

Perhaps one of the best insights into Johnson's vision for EPA can be found in written testimony he submitted to a Senate committee this year. In the document, Johnson laid out his top 11 goals.

No. 1 was clean energy, particularly approving drilling for "thousands of new oil and gas wells" on tribal and federal lands. No. 2 was homeland security.

Environmental enforcement and sound science ranked ninth and 10th.

Now, since Johnson took the helm of the EPA in 2005, he's done a few green things here and there—killing a wetlands-destroying flood-control project in the Mississippi Delta, issuing stringent limits on lead, retrofitting school buses to reduce soot… but, as the Inquirer piece makes clear, those scattered endeavors pale beside all the other initiatives Johnson either ignored or watered-down. Ironically, it wasn't just that the EPA was doing the bidding of corporate lobbyists—in some cases, even the corporations affected were willing to move far beyond what the EPA was willing to do:

Frustrated, several environmental groups began to simply sidestep EPA. They said they found corporate executives more receptive.

"After banging our heads into walls repeatedly," said Jacqueline Savitz of the advocacy group Oceana, "we figured out that we had a better chance of convincing private corporations to do the right thing than we did convincing EPA."

When, for example, the EPA refused to regulate waste-water pollution from cruise ships, Oceana and other environmental groups approached Royal Caribbean Cruises directly. To date, Royal Caribbean has spent more than $100 million to retrofit its fleet, said senior executive Jamie Sweeting.

Looking forward, though, what's interesting is that Johnson hasn't really left a lasting mark on the agency. As the Sierra Club's Carl Pope testified before the Senate last September, most of the Bush EPA's efforts to weaken or modify air- and water-quality regulations have been dismantled by the courts. It was a big deal that Johnson refused to issue an endangerment finding on carbon dioxide, which would've triggered mandatory new climate regulations (OK, actually, he did try to issue such a finding, until the White House made him recant), but there's nothing stopping the Obama administration from now moving forward on this. That's hardly a defense of Johnson; it's just to say that it will be less arduous for Lisa Jackson to reorient the EPA over the next four years than it will be for, say, Ken Salazar to clean out the Augean stables over at Interior.

--Bradford Plumer