Clearing the Air

When Eric Schaeffer resigned as the Environmental Protection Agency's chief of enforcement in late February, he pushed the Bush administration's environmental record into the spotlight.

| Mon Apr. 1, 2002 4:00 AM EST
For 12 years, Eric Schaeffer worked several steps away from the Washington spotlight. That all changed in late February, when Schaeffer resigned from his post as chief of enforcement for the Environmental Protection Agency, complaining that the White House was undermining anti-pollution efforts.

In his resignation letter to EPA chief Christine Todd Whitman, Schaeffer wrote he had become frustrated "fighting a White House that seems determined to weaken the rules that we are trying to enforce." Schaeffer has since suggested that industry representatives have been allowed to shape White House policy on several environmental issues, including aspects of the 1990 Clean Air Act.

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MotherJones.com: In terms of your resignation, was there something that really just crystallized everything or pushed you over the edge?

Eric Schaeffer: This wasn't an epiphany or some exact moment that I can say, 'This is when it happened.' The May energy report [of Vice President Dick Cheney's National Energy Policy Development Group] was disappointing. The Cheney report kind of said to me, okay, the energy industry has a hold of this process, the Department of Energy is now going to be advising usÑmore than advising us, it's going to be kind of co-deciding new source review and what we're going to do about these old coal plants. The "Coal Council" that gave Cheney advice is the coal industry.

In this administration, on energy issues, it's all what the energy industry wants. I know you've heard the line, 'Well, why shouldn't we talk to the experts?' But we're talking about the Clean Air Act, not just energy policy, and the Clean Air Act is not something that should be decided by the energy industry by itself.

MJ: And the letter? Your resignation letter had a kind of passion that's rare in Washington these days.

ES: I tossed that idea back and forth -- Would it be a good idea, would it not? -- and then wrote the letter the night before I left. I sat down thinking that I would write two to three paragraphs. And then I realized, well you can't really explain anything like this in two or three paragraphs, and it just came out.

And I was angry. And yes, my letter was passionate. It just seemed so unfair -- I couldn't get over that.

MJ: Did the roots of your frustration go back a while?

ES: I started two years ago thinking, if there's a turnover, dealing with the energy industry is going to get much more difficult. This is part of who Bush is -- that's not something that you had to do any research on. And so we worked really hard to build momentum and to get our refinery settlements finished. We had a crew working on inauguration day to finish one of these settlements, understanding that time was running out.

MJ: Really?

ES: Oh, absolutely, we had a very acute sense of that two years ago. This is an administration that loves the energy industry, that comes from the energy industry, and thinks that what's good for the industry is good for the country.

MJ: As you pointed out in your letter, some of these are life-and-death issues.

ES: When you look at the power plant cases, there's no arguing that they're big sources of pollution. You just can't deny that. This is a big, important public-health problem. If you get through each month without coming up with emission reductions, you're losing time.

I think the public's idea about how much coverage they're getting from the enforcement program is probably pretty distorted. They probably assume there's a lot more activity than there is.

I think there are more than a thousand inspectors in the Agriculture Department to cover packinghouses -- that's roughly one inspector per plant. We are so far off that for environmental laws. About a quarter of the very biggest Clean Air Act sources, the major sources [of air pollution], don't see an inspector more often than once every five or six years. Now if you have somebody drop by that seldom, it's almost like, why bother? That's no presence at all. We have whole programs that are just almost completely unfunded.

On the corporate side, there's been a pretty steady effort to chip away at federal enforcement authority. You hate to see a program that has so much to do decline so significantly without a public debate. You know, this program has been eroding for some time, and under this administration even more so.

MJ: Is the source of the problem cronyism, is it raw political influence, is it the confluence of ideology?

ES: A big part of the problem is that this is inside baseball, an inside-the-Beltway battle -- a K Street specialty. And the game is to basically take the bureaucrats, stuff them in the corner, and overwhelm them with lobbying firepower.

We had companies telling us, 'This is being worked at the White House and the Energy Department, and we're not in a position to comply with laws that are more or less [going to be] eliminated.'

It used to be that enforcement was more or less separate from that kind of political hardball. And so this felt new and a little more sinister.

And then we saw -- and this was really disturbing, and this was new, for me -- we started seeing letters from the Hill that essentially recited the industry's arguments. We'd get a slew of letters that pretty much said the same thing, used the same jargon, all signed by different members [of Congress]. In other words, you've got members of Congress appearing as defense lawyers for companies in a major suit. That's kind of demoralizing.

MJ: And we're talking about a suit brought by the U.S. government.

ES: It is the government. There's a separation-of-powers issue here for those who are really interested in that kind of thing. But suddenly we had a political interference that I'd never seen before. Never seen anything like it until the last year. And I do charge the Bush people with creating that kind of climate.

MJ: And the avenues for the interference were what?

ES: The White House and the Energy Department. The Energy Department has one client: the energy industry. That's it. The industry has its own lobbyists. Why do we need a tax-supported agency to essentially flack for the energy industry? The Energy Department does some good things, but on this issue it was just a middleman.

MJ: If you could feel it, other people obviously felt it.

ES: Oh sure, we all knew. We could feel it.

MJ: The Administrator could have stopped it, right?

ES: I don't know, I don't know. All I can keep saying is, EPA seems to be the junior partner.

MJ: Do you think that when all the Cheney task force documents are ultimately released, we'll see all this laid bare?

ES:I would like to see a greater focus on what they were doing with the Clean Air Act in the guise of talking about energy policy. I think there should be outrage about that.

MJ: Can you envision anything that could be done to rebuild the "Chinese Wall" around enforcement at the EPA?

ES: There has to be some public attention on the issue. If there isn't, the power is going to keep concentrating in the same tight circle of lobbyists. How you do that, I don't know. But if you don't do it, they'll keep using a blizzard of big words and flow charts with tiny print to hammer home their argument that the public should stay out of this: "You're not going to understand it, this isn't for you. The experts are taking care of everything." That has to be fought.

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