First in a series.
EPA’s administrators past and present have faced their share of challenges and triumphs as they steered the agency through some of the most consequential environmental decisions of the past 50 years.
William Ruckelshaus, EPA’s first administrator, starting in 1970, who returned to lead the agency again in the 1980s, said the post was the most satisfying in his long career.
"I’ve had an awful lot of jobs in my lifetime and, in moving from one to another, have had the opportunity to think about what makes them worthwhile. I’ve concluded there are four important criteria: interest, excitement, challenge and fulfillment. I’ve never worked anywhere where I could find all four to quite the same extent as at EPA," said Ruckelshaus, who died last year, in an oral history interview with the agency.
"At EPA, you work for a cause that is beyond self-interest and larger than the goals people normally pursue. You’re not there for the money, you’re there for something beyond yourself."
There have been 15 administrators confirmed by the Senate to lead EPA, 10 of whom are still alive. Nine agreed to answer questions for the story.
Seven former administrators answered questions in phone interviews with E&E News, while Mike Leavitt emailed his answers and an EPA spokesman shared Administrator Andrew Wheeler’s written responses. Attempts to have Stephen Johnson, President George W. Bush’s last EPA administrator, who served from 2005 to 2009, respond to questions for this story were unsuccessful.
E&E News asked each EPA administrator the same four questions. Their answers show how the challenges facing the agency have evolved and what it might encounter in the future.
Why did you accept the job of EPA administrator?
Lee Thomas, administrator under President Reagan from 1985 to 1989: I accepted the job, frankly, because I felt I could make a contribution to that agency. I had been there for a year and a half. Bill [Ruckelshaus] talked to me about the position and said he was going to recommend me for the job. I felt it was a tremendous opportunity.
William Reilly, administrator under President George H.W. Bush from 1989 to 1993: I thought seriously about not taking it. I remember talking to my mentor [Russell Train], who was chairman of my board when I was president of the World Wildlife Fund and the Conservation Foundation. Ruckelshaus said, "I think that you’re likely to get asked," and I said, "I think I’ll say no; I really like where I am, putting these two institutions together." Well, Ruckelshaus knew that if I got into the office, it’d be hard to say no. I was asked by the president to come in. I laid out three conditions. I said, one, "I would really want the assurance of access." He said, "Granted." I said secondly, "I really do need you to say that you are going to keep your campaign promise to have a new Clean Air Act." He said, "I’m going to do it; I give you my word." And I said, "I’d like to be able to appoint my own people, including some Democrats." He said, "I can’t give you that; I can’t give you carte blanche to name your own people. But I’ll tell you what, I’ll make a deal with you: nobody you don’t want." At any rate, I said yes, I agreed to do it.
Carol Browner, administrator under President Clinton from 1993 to 2001: I was running the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation, so I had a lot of interaction with EPA. I saw the possibility, the opportunity of really trying to think about these issues quite broadly as opposed to what I was able to do on the state level. I was working for Gov. Lawton Chiles [D] at the time in Florida when I was commissioner of the environment there. One of his favorite Southern governors was Bill Clinton. I met him when he visited Florida during Hurricane Andrew, so in August of that election year. We ended up spending the day together visiting various sites that had been impacted by the hurricane.
Christine Todd Whitman, administrator under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2003: It’s pretty hard to turn down a president-elect when they offer something, but also, as [New Jersey] governor and even long before being governor, I had been very interested in and concerned about the environment. Having grown up on a farm, I had firsthand knowledge of how humans affect the natural environment, and so the opportunity to work at that at the federal level was certainly an enticing one and an important one.
Mike Leavitt, administrator under George W. Bush from 2003 to 2005: As a Western Republican governor, I spent a disproportionate amount of time dealing with conflicts related to cleaning air, water and land. A Democrat governor, John Kitzhaber of Oregon, and I wondered if there wasn’t a better way to resolve disputes, and we developed a formal environmental philosophy we dubbed "Enlibra — to move toward balance." In large measure, I agreed to serve at EPA because I wanted to see if environmental progress could be accelerated taking a different approach.
Lisa Jackson, administrator under President Obama from 2009 to 2013: It was really the greatest honor I could imagine at that time. I joined EPA in 1987, so by 2009, I had been at the agency and in environmental protection my whole career, well over 20 years. I was thrilled at the idea of being able to go back to the agency and to be a part of President Obama’s environmental agenda.
Gina McCarthy, administrator under Obama from 2013 to 2017: President Obama and I had a conversation in the Oval Office where he asked me if I wanted to be the administrator. I told him, only if we could really take some strong action on climate. And he said, "Gina, that’s why I want you to do it." And that was it. He had me at climate, I guess.
Scott Pruitt, administrator under President Trump from 2017 to 2018: There was great uncertainty, as you recall, as the Trump administration began with respect to orders and rules that had been adopted in the previous administration. That’s the reason, on the first day of the job, I mentioned three things to the entire agency that we were going to be focused upon, and that was rule of law, process and federalism.
Andrew Wheeler, administrator under Trump from 2019 to the present: When the president calls you, you just can’t say no. He asked me to continue to clean up the air, continue to clean up the water and continue to deregulate in order to help create jobs. He and I both knew we can do all three, and we have proven it.
What was your best day as EPA administrator?
Thomas: I would say the best day I had was the day I was in Montreal and signed the Montreal Protocol after three years of working and negotiating and getting that international agreement.
Reilly: The best day was signing of [the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990]. There was a very good moment when the vice president and the budget director were both in favor of vetoing the Clean Air Act when it passed. So I made a deal with Ambassador Derek Burney of Canada to have the prime minister of Canada, Brian Mulroney, call Bush the moment that it passed the House and Senate and tell him that he was going to go down in history as the greatest friend Canada ever had in the White House. I figured once he did that, there’s no chance that Bush would veto the Clean Air Act.
Browner: I think my best day was probably when we beat back the Gingrich assault. There were 16 different riders, limitations on the administrator’s authority to set pollution standards, to enforce pollution standards. When we beat that back, obviously, it was an incredible turning point. I think that the best day was beating [then-House Speaker Newt] Gingrich [R-Ga.], because out of that came a strength, a relationship with the public, that then allowed us to do things like set the first-ever fine particle standard, to take fine particles out of diesel fuel.
Whitman: One was when we got the brownfields legislation through, because it was the first major piece of environmental legislation that had been passed since 1990. I got that done in 2001, I believe, maybe just edging to 2002. And the other was when the Natural Resources Defense Council
opined on our regulation for off-road diesel engines saying it was possibly the best thing done for human health since we’d taken lead out of gasoline.
Leavitt: Early in my tenure, I invited the leaders of more than two dozen environmental groups to join me in that office to get acquainted. I asked them to tell me how their organization started, and why they had personally decided to make environmental advocacy their career. Hearing the stories of why they had devoted themselves to environmentalism, it became clear to me that these were all people who wanted to make the world better — they just saw the world differently. On that day, I learned more about the environmental movement than any single day in my life.
Jackson: In December of 2009, when I signed the endangerment finding [for greenhouse gases]. It was the mission of EPA to find, assess and then do something about potential threats to human health. To be part of resurrecting that science, dusting it off, updating it as it had been suppressed, and to know that as a regulatory agency, that work was so important in terms of future efforts to address greenhouse gas emissions.
McCarthy: One was the day that we announced the Clean Power Plan. President Obama and I were standing waiting to come out because I was introducing him before we went into the East Room. He thanked me for working so hard on it, coming out with such a great regulation, and said, "I really want you to understand how important this is to me, because I’m doing it for my girls." That was pretty momentous to me and a clear indication of how much he cared about this issue and why it was worth four more years in D.C. working my butt off to get it done. The most fun day I ever had as EPA administrator by far was the day that the [federal government] shutdown ended. That morning, when I came to work, I came early, because I wanted to stand outside the building at Federal Triangle and catch people before they would come in to welcome them back. We ended up with a crowd of at least 200 people. [Then-Vice President Joe Biden] was coming. His Secret Service were holding maybe three or four dozen little teeny cupcakes and some juice. I said, "Well, maybe that’s not quite enough." He says, "What do you mean?" I said, "Well, come on out." He opens the door. It was a really big crowd. It was pretty amazing.
Pruitt: One of the most satisfying days was the day that we resolved the West Lake Superfund situation in St. Louis. That was an example, I think, of work at the local level in the community in St. Louis and the work with our staff in Washington and hearing the voices of many, many people and actually providing a resolution that had been many, many years in the making. I think the most historical day was the day that we announced the Paris accord decision [for the United States to exit the pact] by the president in the Rose Garden. There was much work that was done leading up to that decision, obviously, with multiple agencies in the administration, and our team worked diligently and provided clarity and information to the president as that decision was made.
Wheeler: The best personal day for me was taking my family into the Oval Office for the swearing in. Best day professionally was any number of days when I met with local residents around Superfund sites where the agency was finally getting them cleaned up after years of inaction such as Butte, Mont., or St. Louis. When they understand that we are taking their concerns into account and helping them improve their communities, it’s very gratifying.
What was your worst day as EPA administrator?
Thomas: I wouldn’t call it a worst day. I just say there were periods where you get frustrated — for instance, when the president vetoed the Clean Water Act that we’d been working on. I knew it was pointless, because it was clearly going to be overridden, which it was, so we went forward with reauthorization of that, but it was clearly against my recommendation. I was frustrated over that.
Reilly: Bush decided that he would not address climate reduction. He would not favor any significant policy to reduce greenhouse gases. I had held out the hope that Bush would make the decision to do what Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Netherlands, Canada all wanted to do, which was to make a commitment to reduce carbon dioxide by 20% based on the 1990 base. I thought that he would come along, given that the allies were all there, but they had been there for most of four years, and he never was.
Browner: It probably was not a specific day, but it’s a series of events related to the Gingrich assault and the Contract with America. [Then-Majority Whip] Tom DeLay [R-Texas] going to the floor of the House and referring to EPA as the "Gestapo." It was a very dark time, and I think it was very hard for people in the agency who are just these amazing, committed career employees, public servants in the very best sense of the word. We had to sort of navigate through it. As I said, we came out of it much, much stronger and were able to do some pretty important things.
Whitman: Probably having to go up to the Hill to testify about 9/11 with the presumption that EPA and I had lied about ambient air quality in Lower Manhattan. They were after me, obviously, because I had made the statements, but it was always based on science. So essentially, they were attacking the agency, and the work that the people at the agency had been doing was incredible throughout that entire period. There was no way we withheld any information or shaded any information. We told people what we knew, what the scientists knew at the time, given the tools they had at their disposal, and it stands up today.
Leavitt: No question the hardest days were visiting Superfund sites where decades of poor decisions had resulted in human tragedy and environmental disaster. Places like Libby, Mont., where I met with asbestos miners and their families, who had been devastated by lung disease. Or Tar Creek in northeast Oklahoma, where an entire region was collapsing because of poor mining methods. Another hard example was New Bedford, Mass., where the use of PCBs [polychlorinated biphenyls] created health issues for residents.
Jackson: I would have to say going down to my hometown on the Gulf Coast — I grew up in New Orleans — after and during the BP spill, which ironically happened right around Earth Day. It was a city and region that was just beginning to see the light after Hurricane Katrina. The Saints had won the Super Bowl. We were starting to feel like it was all being renewed, and to have to work on another environmental catastrophe, it’s really hard. It’s exactly why you want to be at the agency, because we want to be able to give those communities a voice in the discussion.
McCarthy: It was the morning I heard that the Supreme Court had stayed the Clean Power Plan. That, by far, was the worst day for me. I think no one expected it, and I can remember I was in my office having a meeting at my desk with staff, and my general counsel, Avi Garbow, came in and told me. All I can remember is I had my cellphone in my hand, and I turned around and faced the wall behind me. I really desperately wanted to just chuck that thing at the wall. I’m like, "OK, Gina, you’re way too old to be this immature." I didn’t do it, but boy, did I want to. It really took a while for us to get on pace again.
Pruitt: I think that one of the things that I think was most challenging at different times as I served was just the disconnect between the good work that was being done and the perception. There was a perception, a lack of awareness, with respect to the good work. There was a backlog in the chemical office at the agency that was very, very long, and we processed that; the Superfund, the emphasis that we had as far as cleanups were concerned; the county by county attainment, nonattainment decisions and being timely on that; the RFS [renewable fuel standard] deadline in November as far as the mandates for the following year. There were many, many things on the process side that we were achieving good outcomes and providing good work. There was just a lack of awareness of that good work.
Wheeler: The EPA is a family. The worst times have been when we have lost a member of our family or when our family members are mourning losses within their own. Too many times, people forget to pay attention to those around us who are hurting. During my tenure as administrator, the EPA family lost two of our beloved former administrators, Doug Costle and our first administrator, Bill Ruckelshaus. We will honor them both at our anniversary celebration in December.
What is EPA’s biggest challenge ahead?
Thomas: I would say from an environmental point of view, it’s climate change. From a regulatory point of view, it’s that increasing difficulty of finding a regulatory balance as we try to come to grips with all the various issues that the agency has.
Reilly: Well, the near-term challenge is to eliminate the detritus of regulatory policies, new calculations of how risk assessment is conducted and abandonment of long-term environmental objectives that have characterized EPA for the better part of its 50-year history. It’s going to take the better part of a year to dig out from under the abandonment of methane controls, the narrowing of the definition of the "waters of the United States," the lax regulation of soot and particulates. It goes on and on. All of those will take as much time to repair as they did to undo because you have to have new regulations.
Browner: Climate change. It’s not unique to EPA, but EPA obviously has a hugely important role to play. I think it’s going to require EPA to use its traditional authority, its regulatory authority, but also to work in partnership with business. We built a program when I was at EPA called the Common Sense Initiative and another called Project XL; all of that was about trying to find partnerships for business to get them to go further than what the law requires. I think climate change is going to require both the regulatory backstops, then also these kinds of partnerships.
Whitman: To overcome the damage of the last 3 ½ years, to get people to understand the importance of the agency, that protecting human health and the environment is its challenge, its mission, and that’s what it does. This administration has denigrated science and tried to cut the legs out from under the agency, so repairing that damage and getting more pure scientists back, and not just ones that represent lobby firms or companies that are overseen by EPA.
Leavitt: Nearly every major environmental success I witnessed in public service was a result of collaboration. I will use the cleanup of the Great Lakes as an example. Visibility improvement over the Grand Canyon or saving the salmon in the Northwest are two other examples. Uniformly, progress results when people adopt a collaborative approach. Yet environmental problems are always approached through conflict. It wastes time, money and opportunity, and the environment in every category suffers.
Jackson: The role of science in environmental protection is paramount. When I got to EPA in 2009, we did a couple things first to reaffirm that science would be the backbone of everything we did. We reaffirmed the commitment to transparency, the so-called "fishbowl memo" that Bill Ruckelshaus issued when he came back to the agency. I thought that was just an incredible piece of leadership and management that I wanted to emulate. Climate change is still front of mind, but I think people are starting to see, not unlike COVID, that this has real impact on real communities. It can change their way of life, change what their hometown looks like, what their job looks like. I think really invigorating the environmental justice program, the community-based programs at EPA are extremely important as well.
McCarthy: I think the biggest challenge that they’re going to face is basically reconciling the fact that science demands we make a lot more change more quickly if we expect to address climate change and make sure we don’t have to face the worst consequences. I think EPA is no different than a lot of the environmental agencies and recognizing that issues of the economy, issues of climate change and issues of race go hand in hand. One of the biggest challenges we faced at EPA was that our staff, including our leadership, did not have the kind of representation that you would expect and want to have in terms of diversity. That remains a big challenge for the environmental community, and we’re facing it now. We have to think about it systemically, not just as the environment. It has to actually be a robust way of looking at how we adjust our lives so that we are protecting the environment, we are addressing climate, but we’re building a clean economy with it, and a clean economy that makes it fairer for everyone.
Pruitt: I think there should be great effort to depoliticize as much as possible the agency. There needs to be an overarching vision that I think is comprehensive about environmental stewardship, that we have a commitment to the safety and health of Americans but also recognizes that we are blessed with wonderful and great natural resources. Those statutory guidelines that we have, language that we have, staying within those, because otherwise, there is a perception that’s created and oftentimes politicizes the process, and it doesn’t need to be.
Wheeler: The EPA has a rich history of keeping employees for their entire career — we still have seven charter employees — but current graduates are not expected to remain in the same job or even in the same career during their professional years. We need to attract and retain the next generation of EPA employees.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.