Bill Ruckelshaus has been advising President-elect Obama’s transition team on environmental policy, and it’s no wonder: He knows a fair bit about how to organize the Environmental Protection Agency.
Photo: University of Washington
Not only did he preside over the agency’s founding under President Nixon, but he also returned to do salvage work after the disastrous tenure of Anne Gorsuch, Ronald Reagan’s first EPA administrator, who more or less openly tried to dismantle the agency she was charged with leading.
In 1983 Reagan persuaded the well-regarded Ruckelshaus to return to Washington for a second stint atop the EPA. He confronted an exodus of disgruntled career scientists, a budget that had been cut by more than 22 percent, and a toxic political atmosphere in which many Republicans were using the EPA as a convenient bogeyman in their “get the government off our backs” campaign.
So Ruckelshaus, 76, can relate with the next EPA administrator, who must clean up after the George W. Bush administration. During our interview at his Seattle venture capital firm earlier this month, his secretary interrupted to hand him a news report that Obama’s EPA choice had been leaked: Lisa Jackson of New Jersey.
“I think she’s fine,” he said of Jackson. “I’ve never had any personal dealings with her … but people I know speak very highly of her.”
He had similar words of praise for Obama’s choice for “energy czar” — Carol Browner of the Clinton EPA.
Ruckelshaus predicted the incoming EPA leadership will face many of the same challenges he confronted in 1983, with a few key differences. First, he had to convince EPA employees and potential recruits that his boss, Reagan, supported their mission. Under Obama, that shouldn’t be a problem.
“We’ve got a new president who’s obviously excited a lot of people in society,” he said. “Particularly young people, but a lot of people, and they’ll be able to attract first-rate people at the EPA.”
Second, none of the environmental problems he faced in the early 1980s matched the scale and complexity of global warming. There’s been recent discussion about whether the Obama administration has the authority to address this through a carbon cap-and-trade program under the Clean Air Act, avoiding the need for new legislation. Ruckelshaus said he doubts the courts would uphold this interpretation.
He also questioned whether the EPA — or any other government entity — is up to administering such a complex plan.
“Making [a cap-and-trade program] both effective and simple enough to implement is not going to be itself simple,” he said.
He cited last year’s Lieberman-Warner cap-and-trade bill (America’s Climate Security Act), a 492-page plan that died in the Senate in June. “It was unbelievably complex,” he said. “I defy anybody to figure out what that meant.”
Instead of a cap-and-trade plan, Ruckelshaus favors a tax on carbon emissions. Such a move would still let the market decide where reductions should happen, but it would be much simpler for the government to administer, he said.
“It has the desired effect,” he said. “It moves consumption toward less carbon-intensive activities. It does everything a cap-and-trade system does, but it’s about ten times simpler. And about one-tenth as popular, which is why we don’t have it.”
“Presidential candidates, and others, have to promise they won’t raise taxes,” he said. “Cap-and-trade is a form of tax, but it’s not as overtly a tax as a straight tax on carbon.”
Ruckelshaus said a cap-and-trade program would carry too many “unintended consequences.” Those are inevitable in any large government program, he said, though he believes climate change compels the U.S. government to play a leading role.
The proper role of government has been a constant question in Ruckelshaus’s career. The son of a prominent Indiana attorney, he investigated water quality for the Indiana Board of Health, served as a state legislator, and ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate as a Republican in 1968. President Nixon asked Ruckelshaus to assemble the first EPA in 1970, responding to a groundswell of public demand for better air and water quality and pollution control. Ruckelshaus is often credited for setting a high professional standard and establishing a precedent for listening carefully to both industry and public input on issues — a distinctive style that hasn’t always been popular with either environmentalists or industrialists.
Ruckelshaus left the EPA to become acting director of the FBI, then took a senior post at the Northwest logging titan Weyerhaeuser before Reagan persuaded him to return to the EPA. He made gains in restoring credibility and morale there, stepping up enforcement that was all but absent under Gorsuch. Critics say Reagan picked him mainly to defuse the environment as a potentially troublesome issue in the 1984 election.
Ruckelshaus has since served on a number of corporate boards and co-founded Madrona Venture Group in Seattle.
He says he doesn’t want an Obama administration job and doesn’t expect to be offered one. Since the election, he has advised transition team members through several conference calls, though he hasn’t tried to convince them to replace a cap-and-trade proposal with a carbon tax.
If there is a national cap-and-trade program, he’d like to see it auction off all emissions credits, rather than giving them away for free (or “grandfathering” them). He said an auction would provide much-needed revenue for the government. “We can’t just keep cutting taxes and spending everything we want without having some impact,” he said. “Essentially, what we’re doing is shouldering all the payment responsibility off on our children. We can’t do that forever.”
He spoke highly of Obama’s proposed public works plan, however. In fact, he hopes it can support his current public project — cleaning up the Puget Sound. At the request of Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D), Ruckelshaus leads the Puget Sound Partnership, a sort of blue-ribbon panel that hopes to devise a plan for restoring the huge estuary.
From Ruckelshaus’s 37th-floor office in downtown Seattle, the Sound looks nearly pristine, as it does from most long-distance viewpoints. But thousands of pollution sources, large and small, flow into the Sound, a problem that has confounded the region for years.
One of the least glamorous fixes would be separating regional sewer and stormwater systems so that sewage doesn’t flow directly into the Sound during storms, as it does now. Correcting that would be both costly and job-intensive, so it may be a good fit for a national job-creation program, Ruckelshaus said.
“They need to have quick proposals in order to generate jobs,” he said of Obama’s economic stimulus proposal. “At the same time, somebody’s got to pay attention to whether those proposals are actually providing a public good. We’ve done this review of the needs of Puget Sound and we have plans for restoring that ecosystem. We’ve got a whole list of projects that are ready to go, that have been approved by the federal government.”
His belief that the government is best suited to handle some problems has driven him away from the Republican Party in recent years, Ruckelshaus said. He endorsed Obama in September because of the message he believed an Obama victory would send to the world — that the American people “really do believe in their own statement of ideals.”
He said the party he was loyal to for most of his life has become increasingly dominated by three movements: the Religious Right, an aggressive militarism, and a fierce opposition to taxes.
“Those are the three big pieces of the Republican base,” he said. “I’m not sympathetic to any one of them. So I have to ask myself, am I really a Republican?
“When I ran for office in the ’60s, essentially none of those arguments was part of the debate. The tax question was present in that we’d argue about the size and role of government, but there wasn’t any sense in the party that it had no role. There was a belief that the government’s role should be limited. I believe that, because when the government gets involved in something there are unintended consequences. Government can’t do everything, but it has a role, and it’s not just national defense.”