The Associated Press/WASHINGTON
By JOHN HEILPRIN
President Bush turned to a career scientist Friday to head the Environmental Protection Agency and push changes Bush wants in air pollution and clean water programs.
Bush nominated Stephen L. Johnson, a biologist and pathologist by training, to become the first person in the agency´s 35-year history to rise from within its ranks to the top job of administrator. The nomination must be confirmed by the Senate.
Johnson´s first task will be to sell air pollution regulations — expected to come out within the next two weeks — aimed at reducing mercury emissions from power plant smokestacks and other pollutants carried by winds across state lines.
Johnson also faces the immediate chore of freeing Bush´s top legislative priority, a “clear skies” bill stalled more than two years in the Republican-controlled Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
That measure would impose mandatory ceilings on three of the biggest pollutants from power plants — sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury — but allow individual plants to exceed their shares by buying pollution rights. Environmentalists say the legislation would delay needed cleanups.
“If confirmed, it will be my distinct privilege to serve you and our nation to continue to advance your environmental agenda while maintaining our nation´s economic competitiveness,” Johnson told Bush during a White House ceremony.
He praised Bush as having made “great strides in environmental protection” his first term.
Johnson would succeed former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who last month became head of the Health and Human Services Department. Johnson would take the reins of an 18,000-employee agency with an $8 billion budget.
Bush wants to cut EPA spending by nearly a half-billion dollars next year, primarily from clean water programs. He wants to reduce by one-third the low-interest loans to states for water quality protection and decrease spending on replacing aging water treatment facilities and pipes by 83 percent.
The president said one of Johnson´s top jobs also would be to “lead federal efforts to ensure the safety of our drinking water supply,” saying the EPA has “an important role in the war on terror.”
Senate Environment Chairman James Inhofe, R-Okla., who once called for abolishing EPA, said Johnson would be moving into “one of the toughest jobs in the federal government.”
Environmentalists expressed pleasure that Bush looked at professional rather than political credentials for filling the job but cautioned that Johnson has a reputation as a loyal foot soldier with political savvy and may not set his own agenda.
“We hope that Mr. Johnson can rise above the White House´s expectations that he will be a figurehead,” said Carl Pope, the Sierra Club´s executive director.
Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., a frequent critic of Bush´s policies, said he hoped Johnson would bring a fresh approach and “help repair and restore the credibility of the Bush administration´s environmental record with the American public, Congress and the world.”
Johnson, 53, has been with the agency 24 years. He is well-respected among the agency´s career employees and on Capitol Hill, where he is viewed as having succeeded recently in mixing professionalism with increasing political astuteness. He led the pesticides office until 2003, when he became EPA´s No. 2 official, taking on more public duties.
Jay Vroom, president of CropLife America, a pesticide trade group, called Johnson “well-respected by the stakeholders and constituents that work with the EPA on a daily basis.”
Johnson replaced Leavitt as acting administrator in January. In nominating him Friday to fill the job full-time, Bush called Johnson “a talented scientist and skilled manager with a lifelong commitment to environmental stewardship.”
“He knows the EPA from the ground up and has a passion for its mission,” Bush said. “He will listen to those closest to the land because they know our environmental needs best.”