Bush nominates EPA scientistto run controversial agency

Senate Hearing on Genetically Altered Corn
Steve JohnsonAlex Wong / Getty Images file
/ Source: msnbc.com

President Bush on Friday nominated Steve Johnson, the acting head of the Environmental Protection Agency, as his choice to continue in the post. A 24-year EPA employee, Johnson would become the first professional scientist to head the agency if confirmed by the Senate.

“He knows the EPA from the ground up and has a passion for its mission,” Bush said in announcing the nomination from the Roosevelt Room of the White House.

The president avoided nominating a politician to head an agency that's become a lightning rod for criticism from environmental activists and Democratic lawmakers.

Pesticides, toxics expertise
Johnson, who has specialized in pesticides and toxic substances, became acting EPA chief just six weeks ago after the previous chief, Mike Leavitt, was sworn-in as Bush's health secretary.

The president's nominee will require approval from the Senate, where most Democrats have been hostile toward the administration's environmental policies.

Christine Todd Whitman was Bush's first EPA chief and recently wrote a book critical of the more conservative ranks within the Republican Party. Both are Republicans and former governors; Leavitt of Utah and Whitman of New Jersey.

While moderates within the Republican Party, neither Whitman nor Leavitt were welcomed by environmentalists, who perceive the administration as favoring industry.

Non-politician stressed
Bush focused on Johnson's non-political credentials, stating that he expects Johnson to become “the first professional scientist to lead the EPA.”

Johnson, for his part, echoed administration policy of balancing environmental and economic needs. “If confirmed," he said with Bush by his side, "it will be my distinct privilege to serve you and our nation to continue to advance an environmental agenda while maintaining our nation’s economic competitiveness.”

And he praised the president for "great strides in environmental protection" during his administration.

Hot-button issues within the EPA's domain are global warming, air quality, ocean pollution and fuel efficiency.

The president's federal budget request would cut EPA spending by 5.6 percent from last year's $8.6 billion. The agency employs 18,000 people.

Johnson, 53, earned university degrees in biology and pathology and worked for Hazelton Laboratories and Litton Bionetics before joining the EPA.

Reaction from industry, activists
Sen. Jim Jeffords, a former Republican and now independent from Vermont, welcomed Johnson's nomination.

"His experience and temperament make him a solid choice to lead the agency at this time," Jeffords, a senior member of the Senate environment committee, said in a statement. "The Bush administration has the worst environmental record in history, and I am hopeful that given Steve's background and experience, he can bring a fresh and new approach."

A coalition of electricity utilities also had praise for Johnson.

"This act places a capable leader at the helm of an important agency," Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, said in a statement.

Segal noted that Johnson has twice been confirmed by the Senate, once as deputy EPA chief and before that as an assistant administrator.

Phil Clapp, head of the National Environmental Trust, called the nomination "a good sign because this is a professional appointment, not a political one.

"However," he added in a press statement, "it remains to be seen whether under Mr. Johnson the agency will be afforded some level of scientific independence on making environmental decisions."

The Sierra Club's director was more skeptical. In a statement, Carl Pope said "this is deja vu all over again."

While Johnson is "the best we could expect as a nominee from the Bush administration," Pope said, Whitman went to the EPA with environmental credentials "but the White House clearly called all the shots."

"When she left, we suspect out of frustration," Pope said, "the White House appointed Mike Leavitt as its frontman. We hope that Mr. Johnson can rise above the White House's expectations that he will be a figurehead."