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Picking a New EPA Chief

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Stand back. Washington's eco-politics will soon be in full horn-locking mode.

The occasion will be President Bush's coming nomination for a new Environmental Protection Agency administrator to replace Christie Whitman.

The Senate's minority Democrats, backed by the well-funded green lobby, see a chance to use the nomination hearings and a floor debate to do political damage to the reelection hopes of a president who has tried to balance environmental interests with those of consumers and business. (See story)

To dampen this expected partisan attack, Bush may nominate a former senator, Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (R) of Idaho, who once chaired the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and might receive more Senate courtesy than other nominees.

Still, the hot-button issue is likely to be so-called "meddling" by the Bush White House in the EPA's policymaking (not its regulation). Ms. Whitman was accused of bowing to the Bush team, as though an elected president had no right to influence environmental goals.

No matter who's nominated, the Senate should think hard about changing the tenor of the nation's environmental debate. In a parting shot, Whitman wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece that "until the tone of the debate over environmental policy changes, the next generation of environmental progress will be made more difficult than it should be."

Few of the eco-issues today can still be framed as green vs. greed, or wildlife vs. humans. The problems are too complex, the costs too high, and too many solutions are available to get around that sort of dead-end dichotomy.

Yet black-and-white thinking remains pervasive within the environmental lobby, which often uses stark and dire warnings of eco-doom to gain members and money. And too many journalists assigned "to cover the environment" end up being captured by their beat, failing to balance stories.

To improve the debate, the EPA and others have begun to publish retrospectives on progress made so far on the environment. This sort of gratitude toward a job well done can help dispel the polarization of current debates. The EPA should no longer be a lightening rod for a stale approach to keeping a sustainable environment.

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