However, the administration appears to have realized the extent to which it is being perceived as anti-environmental. For example, Whitman announced Monday the agency would uphold a strict last-minute Clinton-era rule protecting "wetlands" from dredging, and the president praised the action.
Tuesday, after a meeting with the president, Whitman announced another last-minute Clinton-era rule, mandatory lead emissions reporting by companies using more than 45 kilograms (100 pounds) a year of lead, would go into effect.
(Environmentalists have not publicly questioned why, if Clinton actually cared about the environment, he waited until the tail end of his eight years in office to unleash so many of his costly regulations.)
Furthermore, the White House appears to be taking all the talk of global warming seriously. A senior White House official, speaking on background, told United Press International that weekly Cabinet-level meetings - separate from the Cabinet-level energy policy meetings - were focusing on carbon dioxide emissions and global warming.
Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, EPA's Whitman, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, Interior Secretary Gale Norton, Commerce Secretary Donald Evans, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman comprise the group. They are studying many reports and articles, including the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report and the U.S. National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change, the official said.
Both reports predict at least a temperature increase of 5 degrees if there is no change in use of carbon fuels such as gasoline, coal and natural gas.
Mainstream scientists agrees that such an increase, were it to occur, would have profound environmental and economic effects worldwide.
The Cabinet group is looking at the science involved in reaching the conclusion that the earth is warming. Climatologists are being consulted, for example. Research and development efforts to develop new technologies are being studied and market systems are being assessed to determine if they are working or not, said the official, who attends the weekly meeting.
No timeline for the meetings has been set and no commitment has been made to issuing a report, the official explained.
UPI asked one of the co-chairmen of the congressionally mandated U.S. National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change, Tony Janetos, what he would tell the Cabinet group if he were at the meetings.
"One of the things that I'd be telling them is not to think that this is an ideological issue. There's some very solid science here in terms of one might reasonably expect from the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere," Janetos said.
"They should talk to every scientist they can possibly get to come talk to them on this issue," said Janetos, chief program officer at World Resources Institute.
At the same time, Whitman is taking a close look at permissible levels of arsenic in the drinking water. Arsenic, regularly consumed at greater than 50 parts a billion, is generally believed to cause several kinds of cancer.
One of Whitman's senior staff told UPI that Whitman had accepted the conclusions of National Research Council that the legal level of arsenic had to be reduced below 50 parts a billion, the standard for more than half a century, including Clinton's eight years in office.
Ideas are being floated and critically examined in Whitman's office. A spokesman for the EPA said that two panels were going to be convened to study the issue, but Whitman's senior staff person said that this was not definite.
Ten months ago, while Whitman was governor of New Jersey, her Department of Environmental Protection recommended "that public water systems and private well-owners take action to reduce exposure when arsenic levels exceed 5 (five) parts per billion."
UPI asked Karl T. Kelsey, professor of cancer biology and environmental health at Harvard School of Public Health, about the risk of arsenic in drinking water.
"The nature of public health risk at 50 parts per billion is too high. I personally support lowering it. The amount of work that went into the NRC recommendation of lowering the standard is enormous. People have thought about this for a long time. We've got a standard that's been with us since the '40s, and science suggests that lowering it is appropriate," he said. "To do nothing at this point, I think, is inappropriate."
It is the job of politicians to make decisions in the absence of total certainty based on what is known, not what is unknown, Kelsey said.
At the Department of Agriculture, Secretary Ann Veneman is wrestling with a rule developed in the last three years of the Clinton Administration that would make tree cutting, new road building and road maintenance off limits in 30 percent of the 300,000 square miles managed by the Forest Service, part of USDA. Bush put the rule on hold when he came into office.
As for proposed budget cuts, Allen Mattison, a spokesman for the left-wing Sierra Club, complained to UPI that core programs for environmental enforcement and the primary missions of agencies were being "slashed."
The administration has clearly realized the anti-environmental image it is acquiring. How much its decisions on carbon dioxide emissions, arsenic in the drinking water and roadless areas in national forests will reflect this realization remains to be seen. That's an image, however, that may be hard to undo.
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