There’s so much talk of hirings, firings, retirings, and resignations at environment-related agencies in the Bush administration that it feels almost as though a whole new regime were coming in, when in fact we’re likely to get four more years of the same policy aims.

Ann Veneman (left) and Spencer Abraham.

Photo: USDA.

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Departing at the cabinet level are Ann Veneman and Spencer Abraham, secretaries of the Department of Agriculture and Department of Energy, respectively, both of whom threw in the towel this past week in the shadow of Colin Powell‘s resignation from the State Department. Their exits don’t come as a huge surprise — both jobs are short on glamour and long on hassles, and neither administrator had racked up a legacy of history-book-worthy achievements.

Veneman presided over the launch of the USDA’s national organic-standards program in 2002, but this year was criticized for trying to weaken organic standards, a move she was forced to back down from. She’s also been lambasted by environmentalists for pushing controversial initiatives at the Forest Service, most notably the rollback of the Clinton-era roadless rule. Her record on mad cow disease was applauded by industry and criticized by health groups. Republicans praised her for working with farmers to preserve private land, but as a fiscal conservative, she was also criticized by the farm lobby for advocating reduced agriculture subsidies. By all accounts, Veneman has been unflappably dedicated to her post in the past four years, even after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002. She’s now likely to take some time off.

None of the rumored potential replacements for Veneman would change the agenda much. At the top of the list is Rep. Charles W. Stenholm (D), a 13-term Texas congressperson who lost his seat in this month’s election (but don’t be fooled by his party affiliation; he’s an old-time Southern Democrat whose voting record is hard-line Republican). Also on the list is another Texan Democrat, Pete Laney, a farmer, old friend of the president, and former speaker of the Texas House of Representatives. Then there’s Ambassador Allen Johnson, chief agriculture negotiator for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, who works to expand U.S. agriculture trade worldwide, and William Hawks, undersecretary of agriculture for marketing and regulatory programs.

Ultimately, the pick won’t make too much of a difference to environmentalists given that Mark Rey, assistant secretary of agriculture who oversees the U.S. Forest Service, is expected to stay on and stick to his pro-industry course.

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Abraham, for his part, launched the Bush administration’s FreedomCAR initiative to develop commercially viable hydrogen-powered cars over the long term, which was dismissed by critics as a red herring to avoid the challenge of developing fuel-efficient cars in the near term. He may soon be spending all of his time thinking about cars. Word is that Abraham is up for the top position at the auto industry’s biggest trade group, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers in Washington, D.C. — a natural fit given that Abraham served as Michigan’s senator for six years. (White House Chief of Staff Andy Card had been expected to take that post — similar to one he held from 1993 to 1998 — but now that Card is staying on in his role on Pennsylvania Avenue, Abraham seems to be second in line.)

The frontrunner for Abraham’s position is William Martin, who served as deputy energy secretary under President Reagan and currently heads DOE’s panel on nuclear issues. A strong supporter of designating Yucca Mountain as the nation’s nuclear waste dump, Martin would face tough questions from the new Senate minority leader, Harry Reid (D) of Nevada. U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza is also a top contender, having ties to Bush as a former chair of the Texas Railroad Commission, and now strong connections to Mexico, which is one of the top oil suppliers to the United States. Lower on the list are Kyle McSlarrow, the current No. 2 at DOE, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens (R), and, last but not least, Edison Electric Institute President Tom Kuhn (some might say that putting the energy industry’s most powerful lobbyist at the head of the DOE would be apropos, however indiscreet, for the Bush administration).

Gale Norton.

Photo: U.S. DOI.

EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt and Interior Secretary Gale Norton haven’t made a peep about their futures; all signs point to them staying put. Some Beltway insiders expected Leavitt to be just a placeholder at EPA, to hold out until the end of Bush’s first term with the understanding that he would get an upgrade after doing the dirty work on the heels of Christie Whitman‘s uncomfortable departure from the agency. The rumor mill had it that Leavitt wanted Interior, according to former EPA enforcement chief Sylvia Lowrance.

That’s not looking like much of an option now given that Norton doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Norton is rumored to have had high hopes of replacing Attorney General John Ashcroft, having served as Colorado’s AG before coming to Interior, but she lost out to Alberto Gonzales.

Mike Leavitt.

Photo: U.S. Senate.

Leavitt doesn’t seem too disappointed with the current state of affairs. He told the press excitedly last week that the election validated the Bush administration’s approach to environmental policy, and he told the L.A. Times that more than a third of EPA’s staff would become eligible to retire in the next four years, “giving him a chance to remake [the agency] from the inside out.”

Lowrance, who served more than 20 years at EPA, was rankled by the pronouncement: “It’s clear that there’s a desire [in the Leavitt EPA] to get rid of some of the most seasoned career staff, most of whom have served both Democratic and Republican administrations well. It’s so unfortunate that this administration can’t embrace them.”

Jeff Ruch, director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, sounded even more despondent: “My guess is Leavitt will get just what he wants, waves and waves of retirements, but there’s no guarantee that these civil servants will even be replaced given the huge budget cuts that are likely in store for the EPA. At the end of the next four years, the agency could be a walking corpse, or at least crippled to the point that it can’t effectively do its job.”

By that point, Leavitt might not be heading the agency. According to one energy-industry lobbyist who spoke to Muckraker on condition of anonymity, Leavitt will stick around for now, but probably not for Bush’s full second term: “I am sure there is a bigger role ahead for Mike Leavitt — he’s a rising star.” Neither is Norton expected to stay for the long haul: “My guess is that Norton will go and run for Colorado governor,” said the lobbyist, in which case Leavitt might get his desired post in 2006, when the Centennial State’s governorship comes up for election. Ultimately, this musical-chairs game is more entertainment than substance. No matter who sits where, the Bush administration has made its agenda clear, along with the fact that it doesn’t take kindly to renegades.