Darn the Federal Budget. Full Speed Ahead!

The "Treasury of the Pharaoh" in Petra, Jordan, could be environmentally troubled. Maybe.
The "Treasury of the Pharaoh" in Petra, Jordan, could be environmentally troubled. Maybe. (By Chris Hondros -- Getty Images)
By Al Kamen
Friday, October 24, 2008

The budget deficit may be exploding, cutbacks in federal agencies may be looming, but that doesn't mean there aren't fine travel opportunities for government officials seeking to learn new things and gain insights as the administration prepares for a new team to take over in three months.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen L. Johnson, last seen spending about $280,000 for a two-week tour of Australia in April with 11 staff members, is winding up an excellent 10-day jaunt to the apparently environmentally troubled Holy Land. This may be the first such voyage for an EPA chief in 20 years, if not the first ever.

Johnson, determined to continue gathering those elusive facts until the very end, arrived in Jordan on Saturday to attend the Eco-Cities of the Mediterranean Forum 2008 at Ishtar -- who can forget the movie? -- on the Dead Sea. In a speech Monday, Johnson lauded "our international neighbors, like Jordan" and congratulated the country for recently banning lead in gasoline. We're told he "spoke with Jordanian leaders about the importance of international environmental cooperation at the Russeifah landfill in Russeifah, Jordan."

Johnson didn't make up this trip just to go sightseeing, as some of you may think. On Wednesday, he headed to Israel. Israeli Minister of Environment Gideon Ezra had invited him "to visit Israel with the express purpose of enhancing collaboration on approaches to effective environmental protection," according to an EPA news release. Johnson's also going to meet with the Israeli minister for infrastructure to "promote sharing of information . . . on water security and water quality monitoring."

There were meetings with lots of other officials, including the U.S. ambassador to Jordan. In Israel, Johnson will visit and "make remarks on refuse and pollution issues at Hiriya Landfill in Jerusalem," which is an excellent landfill.

Johnson's itinerary -- even the number of staff members he took this time -- has been kept "close hold" because of security issues. We're told the concern for security was so high that the e-mails regarding the itinerary were locked so they couldn't be copied, forwarded or printed. Not to hide sightseeing trips to Petra in Jordan or through Jerusalem -- or to prevent Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) from finding him and dragging him to that hearing he has been avoiding.

We're told that Johnson took fewer than the 11 staff members who went with him to Australia, though that may be because he apparently took only three advance personnel; these are smaller countries. The only aide mentioned in the official EPA news release is regional administrator Alan J. Steinberg, who was to go along only "during . . . meetings and site visits in Israel." Steinberg's region includes New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and seven Tribal Nations.

That's a man who knows from landfills.

With One Eye on the Clock

Johnson's not the only administration official working feverishly to get the job done before someone turns out the lights. Folks at the Fish and Wildlife Service, for example, are working as fast as possible to get important new federal rules and regulations in place before noon on Jan. 20.

The agency has been working for several months now to change the consultation process required under Section 7 of the much-reviled Endangered Species Act, so that the process does not stymie projects on federal lands -- such as maybe oil and gas drilling -- because there may be reason to think some species of wildlife might disappear.

Either President McCain or President Obama can overturn an executive order from President Bush with the stroke of a pen. But rules must follow procedures, including lengthy public comment periods, and can take a good year or longer to put into effect. Regulations can be undone only by a change in the law or a lengthy new rule-making process.

So we got this e-mail last week that Bryan Arroyo, assistant director for the Endangered Species Program, sent to the agency's top officials.

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