Still, Leavitt is a strong leader who has shown some ability to rein in ultra-conservatives in his home state. So he might not be the passive administrator the White House apparently is seeking after Christine Todd Whitman.
However he turns out, the U.S. Senate is bound to turn Leavitt's confirmation into a heated debate on the Bush environmental record. Four of the announced Democratic presidential contenders are senators, so the temptation will be great to make Leavitt the emblem of the president's agenda.
Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., a member of the Environment and Public Works committee, told United Press International he thinks the Democratic senators running for president "obviously will try and do that, particularly (Massachusetts Sen. John) Kerry, who was sorry to see the Alaska issue drop away because he thought he was going to make some hay with that."
Indeed, soon after Leavitt's nomination was announced, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., issued a press release charging, "from his energy policy to climate change to clean air and clean water, George W. Bush has made siding with corporate special interests over protecting our families a hallmark of his administration."
Whitman "certainly tried to bring some common-sense environmental policies to this White House, but she was repeatedly rebuffed and overruled by a Bush administration bent on siding with corporate polluters and special interests," the release continued. "It doesn't matter who is in charge of the EPA, if corporate polluters continue to write our environmental laws."
Another senator and candidate, Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., charged that "President Bush has the worst environmental record in history. The American people deserve to know whether Gov. Leavitt shares the same disregard for clean air, clean water, land conservation and global warming as the president."
Thomas explained the Environment and Public Works committee is "fairly evenly divided, and even some of our Republicans shift sometimes on environmental issues. But I feel fairly confident that (despite Leavitt's) broad base of reasonable and effective operations -- he's worked on regional air quality, he's worked on visibility in Grand Canyon -- I think there will be an effort to talk about the Bush environmental record and criticize it. But in the end I believe he'll be confirmed by a fairly substantial margin."
Leavitt, 52, has been a three-term governor in Utah. Already, his espoused "clear environmental philosophy," which he calls "enlibra" -- meaning balance and collaboration rather than confrontation -- has been parroted all over the media. But Lawson LeGate, senior southwest regional representative for the Sierra Club, told UPI his experience with the Utah governor has made him skeptical.
"Governor Leavitt will be a good fit with the Bush administration, and I regret to say that -- it's not a good thing." LeGate echoed the Lieberman comment that this administration has "arguably the worst environmental record of any administration in history."
Leavitt, he said, is affable and charming, but those characteristics hide "more extreme policies. He is more than willing to cut deals at the expense of the environment."
There is no doubt Leavitt is popular with the extractive industries.
"He has been very balanced in his approach in evaluating and finding balance between protecting public lands and recognizing the need for public development," Greg Fredde, president of the Utah Mining Association, told UPI. "He is encouraging states to assume more jurisdiction and enforcement. He has been effective and favorable to industry in general," he added.
Leavitt "recognizes the need and value for responsible development. As an industry that is dependent upon access to public lands, we have had a great track record based on his approach of finding that balance," Fredde said.
"It is important to realize that in Utah, Mike Leavitt is considered a moderate," Daniel McCool, a political science professor at the University of Utah and director of the American West Center, told UPI. "Other people, in the East for instance, may not get that. They may sort of shake their heads. The right wing of his party wants to dump him, and it is primarily because of environmental issues."
McCool continued, "I have to say it is to his credit that he has stood up them. He has challenged them and refused to go along with a really negative environmental agenda that is espoused by the more extreme wing of his party."
One of the cornerstones of Leavitt's environmental policy has been a collaborative approach to deal with controversial issues, bringing the parties to the table in an open discussion. So when critics talk about him, they do not go far before they turn to his "secret deal," as it has become known, with Interior Secretary Gail Norton, which restricted new wilderness on Bureau of Land Management acreage -- not only in Utah, but in virtually every western state.
In 1998, Utah filed a lawsuit challenging BLM's wilderness inventory. Most of the lawsuit originally was dismissed. It lay dormant until revived last April with an amended complaint from the state and a settlement by Interior, in which the agency agreed not to inventory any more potential BLM wilderness areas throughout the western states.
Leavitt negotiated the agreement without input from the conservation groups who have advocated Utah wilderness for more than two decades and who, eventually, had to sue to gain access to the negotiations.
"The spin on this nomination is trying to make Leavitt sound like a moderate -- and he does sound reasonable. It is supposed to be about collaboration and bringing all the parties to the table," Larry Young, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, told UPI.
However, Young said, what has happened in practice has been different.
"Our experience (with Leavitt) has been, 'Let's invite everyone who already agrees with us to the table, and then label everyone else an extremist,'" he said. "That doesn't bode well for national policymaking. We know that when it is in his interest, he won't even pretend to be interested in collaborative process," he added.
"While he failed to honor his own principles in regard to the deals he made with the Secretary of Interior, his general philosophy is one of inclusion and participatory decision-making processes," McCool said.
Though Leavitt is not the best choice for environmentalists, he noted, "that's in stark contrast to the Bush administration in everything else. That's where we're see the interesting play. Will any doors open, other than the back doors to the extractive industry? Can he actually implement collaborative problem-solving in an administration that has favored closed-door sessions, featuring only one side of the debate?"
Another potential problem: Most of Leavitt's actual environmental experience is with public lands issues, an area in which EPA has very little jurisdiction. McCool said Leavitt actually is better prepared to be Interior secretary than EPA administrator. On the issues with which Leavitt has dealt and over which EPA has jurisdiction, his record is not encouraging to conservationists. He worked to improve visibility in the Grand Canyon, but he also has promoted a highway through the Salt Lake wetlands, an important waterfowl habitat, and he has cut funding for air quality monitoring in the Salt Lake City urban area.
"As EPA administrator, I think the important question is, 'Can Mike Leavitt be controlled by the Bush administration?' I think that's what Bush is looking for," McCool said. "Whitman had an independent voice and was repeatedly rebuffed -- double-crossed is not too strong a word. The administration is looking for someone who might be a bit easier to control, (but) I don't think Mike Leavitt will fit easily into that category."
According to McCool, the real problem with the Bush administration's environmental record is it "claims to be conservative, but what they have really done is established a record of subsidies and tax breaks and giveaway programs for their friends in the extractive industry."
He added: "I don't think Leavitt is as anti-environmental as the Bush administration has been. He's much more pragmatic and market-oriented."
Sen. Thomas agreed somewhat. "I suppose anyone who is appointed is someone basically to carry out the policy of the administration," he said. "They would be looking for someone they could work with. Not necessarily someone you could manipulate, but someone who shared the same views."