President Bush yesterday nominated a career scientist, Stephen L. Johnson, to be administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, taking environmental groups by surprise and earning the White House uncharacteristic praise from advocates who have long been bitter foes.
If Johnson is confirmed by the Senate, as is expected, he will become the first professional scientist to head an agency that has become a flash point for controversy on such issues as global warming, pesticide safety and drilling for oil in the Arctic.
Johnson's agency is facing tough budget challenges and sustained accusations that its scientific mission has been undercut by political pressures. Former EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman cited such interference in her decision to quit, and a recent inspector general's report suggested that political operatives stampeded agency scientists into a plan for regulating mercury pollution that is biased toward industry interests.
Bush said Johnson would balance environmental concerns with economic imperatives: "His immediate task is to work with Congress to pass my Clear Skies initiative. . . . Congress needs to get it to my desk this year."
That legislation, which Republicans have been struggling in recent weeks to get out of the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee, is only one of the tough challenges ahead. Environmental advocates said Johnson had earned substantial goodwill but would need to prove he can keep politics out of the agency's scientific and regulatory activities.
"I can't say enough positive about him from the standpoint of his fairness and rigor and openness," said Kenneth Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization that has often clashed with the EPA -- and with Johnson. "The big question will be whether he will have the freedom to call 'em like he sees 'em, or whether there will be the kind of interference that Governor Whitman has written about."
In a break from Washington's usual climate of hostility over environmental issues, Johnson's appointment drew praise from groups as diverse as CropLife America, which represents the pesticide industry; the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, which represents utilities; and environmental advocacy groups such as the National Environmental Trust and the League of Conservation Voters.
Sen. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.) said he hopes the appointment "will help repair and restore the credibility of the Bush administration's environmental record with the American public, Congress and the world." Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate committee debating Clear Skies, who has clashed with Jeffords, also welcomed the appointment and said he looks forward to working with Johnson. Both senators, along with Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), have been in tough negotiations over the Bush proposal.
Johnson is likely to find himself in this crossfire immediately. Carper said he congratulated Johnson on his nomination yesterday -- and demanded to know why the EPA had been slow to provide data that would allow comparisons between the Bush plan and alternatives. Carper said he does not think agreement on the initiative will be possible by Wednesday, when the committee, after numerous postponements, hopes to take action on the bill.
"There is obviously somebody constraining the provision of that information," Carper said in an interview. "We have been told for a couple of years that the hands of EPA have been tied by direction from the White House."
Bush's legislation seeks to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury, but Carper contends that its provisions do not go far enough fast enough and that they would weaken the 1990 Clean Air Act. The two sides are also far apart on whether the proposal should control carbon dioxide emissions linked to global warming.
The EPA is expected to issue two regulations this month that would also control most of those pollutants, but the administration has made it clear it would prefer to see a legislative solution, because it would be less vulnerable to legal challenges. Fred Krupp, president of the advocacy group Environmental Defense, said the first test of Johnson's independence would be whether the EPA issued those rules; spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman said the rules are on the way.
Johnson has worked at the EPA for 24 years, most recently as acting administrator of the agency, which has more than 18,000 employees and a budget of $8.6 billion. His education in biology and pathology led to his taking on responsibilities involving the regulation of pesticides and toxic substances.
Many Washington insiders had expected James L. Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, to take the job, and Johnson's appointment came as a surprise. But Frank O'Donnell, president of the environmental group Clean Air Watch, predicted that Connaughton might still decide policy.
"The real story is that on major issues, the decisions are going to be made directly by the White House," O'Donnell said. Johnson's appointment "is another sign that the EPA is, in effect, being downgraded to put a career guy there instead of a former governor," he said.
Whitman, a former governor of New Jersey, was succeeded by Mike Leavitt, former governor of Utah. Bush tapped Leavitt in December to head the Department of Health and Human Services.
An EPA economist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak freely, said many staff members were relieved that Johnson had been chosen: "It will be good for morale, but people in the agency are skeptical about whether he is really going to be allowed to accomplish anything."
Those concerns were balanced by industry worries that Johnson might not be independent of his longtime colleagues, said Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council.
"Some in industry are concerned that Johnson is too close to career personnel," he said. "Some in the environmental groups are concerned he is not tough enough. I think this may mean he is just right."