It takes one to know one, they say, so when Eric Schaeffer indicates that U.S. EPA Administrator Christine Whitman might jump ship, we sit up and take notice. Schaeffer, the former director of the EPA’s Office of Regulatory Enforcement, resigned last February to protest the agency’s failure to fulfill its mission to advocate on behalf of the environment. It’s unlikely, to say the least, that Whitman will stage a similar walkout as a principled statement against the Bush administration, but rumors of her resignation have been circulating for some time — and suddenly, the buzz in the Beltway has intensified.

Whitman looks over the president’s shoulder.

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“I’m hearing from the inside that Ms. Whitman’s a short-timer,” Schaeffer tells Grist. “We’ve thought that from the beginning. People have been saying for a long time that it would happen after the mid-term elections. But my guess is that she won’t resign on principle. I’d hope for that, but I’m thinking it’ll be to take another job — something along the lines of U.S. trade representative or ambassador, a position where she can’t cause any controversy.”

The word on Capitol Hill is that Whitman isn’t making any appointments for meetings after Jan. 1. She has told staffers who followed her from New Jersey, where she was formerly governor, to think about looking for new jobs. Moreover, Eileen McGinnis, Whitman’s chief of staff, resigned effective Dec. 31 and is returning to New Jersey, Whitman told EPA staff members last week.

It’s easy to see why Whitman would want out. For two years, she has drawn fire from environmentalists and others for bowing to Bush administration pressure to gut environmental protections. She’s had to explain to concerned parents why it’s a good idea to continue to allow high levels of arsenic in drinking water — a position so untenable that President Bush eventually dropped it. She’s had to keep a straight face while claiming that air pollution will actually be reduced if utilities go essentially unregulated, reversing greener stances she held as governor of New Jersey. She’s had to defend the U.S.’s ignominious withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, even after promising European officials that her country would continue to back the treaty.

Despite all that (and then some), the EPA’s chief spokesperson, Joe Martyak, flatly denies the rumors of Whitman’s impending resignation. Martyak told the press that Whitman “has absolutely no plans about leaving, but she has a lot of plans about how to continue getting the job done.” He also says a scheduling session earlier this week committed Whitman to meetings into April and May, and he brushes off the McGinnis resignation by saying she had accepted the job at the start of the administration on the condition that she could return home after two years.

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Outgoing Michigan Gov. John Engler.

Be that as it may, the rumors extend not only to Whitman’s resignation, but also to her potential replacements. Schaeffer has heard of several possible successors, including David Struhs, the secretary of Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection; outgoing Michigan Gov. John Engler (R); and James Connaughton, current chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. But the shake-up might not actually shake things up very much, says Schaeffer: “It won’t change who’s calling the shots. These guys get the Bush perspective.”

As reported in these pages by Keith Schneider, Engler is the bane of environmentalists in Michigan, where he effectively pushed an anti-enviro agenda during his 12-year tenure as governor. In a last hurrah, he sought to push through a plan allowing more oil drilling underneath the Great Lakes, a move so extreme that it was disavowed even by conservatives lawmaker in the state and, in fact, by nearly all GOPers running for statewide office in November. Meanwhile, Connaughton’s claims to fame include representing General Electric and Asarco in a Superfund fight against the EPA and authoring a 1993 treatise on “Defending Charges of Environmental Crime — The Growth Industry of the 90s.”

Of the three, Struhs would be the most moderate choice; to the extent that Republicans can be green in the current party climate, he more or less qualifies for the designation, and as such he has garnered the respect of some environmentalists. A fourth name floating around would not be as eco-friendly a choice, however: Josephine Cooper, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, would fit right in with White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and other veterans from the industry world poached by the Bush administration.

Still, mum’s the word among the potential new EPA administrators. “There’s no truth to those rumors,” Engler spokesperson Matthew Resch tells Grist. “The governor is going to stay here in Michigan. He’s considering several options, but EPA is not one of them.” Cooper’s spokesperson says the same: “That’s just idle gossip. This is just a favorite Washington parlor game. There’s no basis to it.” Deena Wells, Struhs’ director of communications, says, “Struhs has often said he has the best environmental job in the nation. He will be staying in Florida for as long Gov. [Jeb] Bush wants him.” When pressed on what Struhs would do if the governor wanted him to go serve his brother in D.C., Wells says, “I can’t speculate on that.”

It may be that Struhs would be wise to stay in the Sunshine State. “The EPA job is really hard to do, even under the best of circumstances,” says Schaeffer. “It may be the hardest job in D.C.”