Field of candidates to head EPA narrows

With Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman preparing to vacate the agency's top job later this month, the field of likely candidates is beginning to narrow, with Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, a stalwart Republican and longtime opponent of environmental organizations, leading the pack of potentials, observers said.

But Kempthorne, who also served in the Senate from 1992-1998, probably would face a political firestorm during his confirmation process, since Democrats would almost certainly use his antiregulatory stance on environmental issues as a rallying point in an attempt to block his nomination.

In fact, environmentalists have already begun to drum up opposition to Kempthorne, distributing a fact sheet listing objectionable quotes made by the governor on the environment.

Sources said Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt has joined Kempthorne as a potential candidate for the EPA administrator job. Although Leavitt has also has had a contentious relationship with environmentalists, he may be seen by some within the administration as a more moderate choice than Kempthorne.

One environmentalist said that in recent days that the stock of Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers President Josephine Cooper has risen. Cooper, who has also worked for the American Forest and Paper Association, served as an aide to Vice President Dick Cheney during his tenure in the House and was an aide on the Environment and Public Works Committee for former Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn.

But Cooper's position as the auto industry's chief lobbyist would almost certainly mean she would face significant opposition from Democrats, particularly since the association has successfully blocked several attempts to raise fuel economy standards.

In addition to the top three candidates on most watch lists, there are a handful of other names floating around Washington, including EPA Deputy Administrator Linda Fisher and Florida environment chief David Struhs. But conservatives have long been hostile to both Fisher and Struhs, arguing Fisher is too close to the agency's nonpolitical staff to perform the duties of administrator and blaming Struhs for inserting language into a 2000 campaign speech by President Bush advocating new climate change rules. Bush was forced to ultimately reject that call, setting up the first of several environmental embarrassments for Whitman and the White House.

Other possible candidates include EPA Region V Administrator Tom Skinner, Colorado environment chief Doug Benevento and EPA Assistant Administrator for Air Jeff Holmstead, among others.