Legendary EPA boss Ruckelshaus stays in political picture

Source: Robin Bravender, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, September 19, 2014

SEATTLE — Bill Ruckelshaus isn’t afraid of chest-pounding politicians.

He’s famous for standing up to Richard Nixon. In October 1973, then-Deputy Attorney General Ruckelshaus resigned after refusing the president’s order to fire the Watergate special prosecutor in an episode known as the Saturday Night Massacre.

And now, the legendary two-time U.S. EPA chief speaks freely about his disdain for his longtime political home, the Republican Party, what he sees as a pathetic Congress, and the reluctance of U.S. pols and policymakers to act decisively on global warming.

Ruckelshaus, 82, left Washington, D.C., decades ago after his second EPA stint during the Reagan administration. Now he lives here in the other Washington, where he’s farther from politics but remains an active player in environmental policy.

This summer, Ruckelshaus returned to Capitol Hill with three other former Republican EPA chiefs to testify in a Senate hearing on an Obama administration rule proposal that would clamp down on power plants’ greenhouse gas emissions.

“That was a wonderful experience,” he said sarcastically of his trip during a recent interview in his office here.

“The issue is just so polarized. The Republicans on that committee — it’s a completely ideological position they take,” he said, referring to the Senate Environment and Public Works panel. “The experience of testifying in Congress all came back with a rush.”

Lawmakers, he said, enter hearings to make a statement if they think it’ll get press coverage. “And then they leave,” he said. “They don’t pay any attention to what anybody says. That’s not just true of the Republicans. It’s true of both sides.”

Congress now is “really different” from what it was during the early 1970s when landmark environmental laws were enacted, Ruckelshaus said.

“The overlap philosophically between the two parties was quite extensive” on environmental issues, he said. “We had what we now call liberal Republicans. There really were liberal Republicans in the Senate, very conservative Democrats, particularly in the House but also in the Senate. So there was a lot of overlap, and there wasn’t a lot of early debate … over the environment.”

Ruckelshaus comes from a long line of Republicans, with a father and grandfather who were both active in GOP politics. But although he served in both the Nixon and Reagan administrations, Ruckelshaus said he’s drifted from the Grand Old Party.

Asked whether he still considers himself a Republican, he replied, “Not really. My family has been for centuries.”

There are now three components to the GOP, he said: people who don’t want to tax and don’t want any government, the religious right, and militarists on foreign policy.

“I don’t agree with any of them,” he said.

But Ruckelshaus — who endorsed Barack Obama prior to the 2008 presidential election and said he’d consider voting for Hillary Clinton if she runs in 2016 — isn’t pledging his allegiance to the Democrats.

“I don’t like what they do either, in many cases,” he said. “Actually, it’s more parties that are turning me off. Instead of saying, ‘I’m trying to figure out what the right solution to the problem is,’ they operate through ideology.

“The Republicans are much worse about it than the Democrats are now, no question about it. But when one party starts doing that, it almost forces the other party into it. It’s very hard to take a reasoned, let’s sit down see if we can’t compromise on something, if one side just refuses to do it,” he said. “So it tends to empower the parts of the other party that are just as ideological on the other side.”

‘Manhattan Project’ for global warming

As environmental problems go, Ruckelshaus considers climate change the “most complex by far that we’ve ever faced,” dubbing it a “quiet crisis.”

“I don’t see anything right on the horizon that’s going to cause us to react sensibly,” he said. “Somehow you need to develop a way of talking about it that convinces people that while it’s a quiet crisis, nevertheless it is something we ought to be paying attention to and there are things that we can do to greatly diminish the amount of carbon we put in the air.”

Ultimately, he said, he doesn’t think the problem can be solved without convincing developing countries that there are cost-competitive fossil fuel alternatives that can fuel their growth and prosperity.

Ruckelshaus’ suggestion: “I think at the national level, we should have a really aggressive research program that we have nothing like right now. The Manhattan Project or the get-to-the-moon project.”

He doesn’t care which agency winds up in charge. “I’d run it out of the White House, myself. Just get some czar over there to ride herd on it — do it very visibly so that everybody can see and people will say, ‘Well, the private sector will rise to that challenge.'”

If the United States successfully developed the technology needed to transition away from carbon-intensive energy, he said, “we would benefit economically from it enormously, but there’s just not much support for that kind of program at a congressional level.”

Obama “gets in and out of the issue,” Ruckelshaus said. “What can he do? He’s got these crises that occur all the time, he can’t talk about something that nobody’s interested in.”

Still, “there’s no doubt in my mind if [Obama] had a Congress at all receptive to doing something about this problem, he would work very hard to work with them to try to solve it,” he said.

“He’s got one House that is just adamantly opposed to doing anything about it, and the Senate takes 60 votes to get anything done, and the Republicans just don’t want to do anything about it.”

The other Washington

Ruckelshaus works out of a big, comfortable office at the Madrona Venture Group, housed on the 34th floor of the Wells Fargo Center in downtown Seattle’s bustling business district. He’s got a stunning view of the city and of the Puget Sound.

He’s a strategic director at the investment company, which pledges to fund “innovative technology companies” in areas like consumer technology, enterprise software and digital media, primarily in the Northwest. The company counts investments in Amazon.com, Classmates.com, Farecast.com and other companies among its successes.

The office features modern furnishings, big picture windows and a hip vibe. On a recent Friday, one visitor standing in the lobby with his arm in a sling was discussing how he injured it during a rock climbing accident.

Ruckelshaus is one of three strategic directors. The other two are Jack Creighton, former president and CEO of Weyerhaeuser Co. (where Ruckelshaus also worked) and Gerald Grinstein, former CEO of Delta Air Lines Inc. “There are three of us here who are about the same age who are strategic directors, and they don’t bother us unless they have to,” Ruckelshaus joked.

Nonetheless, he keeps a busy schedule.

He recently retired from a number of corporate boards (including Weyerhaeuser, Nordstrom Inc. and Monsanto Co.). But he’s still on the board of directors at the World Resources Institute, and he’s chairman of the Meridian Institute — a nonprofit that aims to find collaborative solutions to public policy problems — and the William D. Ruckelshaus Center, another collaborative problem-solving program at the University of Washington and Washington State University.

Ruckelshaus and his wife, Jill — an Indiana native like him — have five children and 12 grandchildren. They live east of Seattle on the opposite side of Lake Washington in the town of Medina.

On a sunny Friday last month, Ruckelshaus and his family were planning a weekend trip to the San Juan Islands near Seattle with Philip Angell, who was Ruckelshaus’ chief of staff during his second stint as EPA administrator.

These days, Ruckelshaus doesn’t travel as much as he used to. “I find traveling not the most pleasant thing in the world. If I need to fly somewhere, I’ll get depressed two days ahead of time thinking about going through the airport,” he said.

He’s a history buff who reads a lot in his spare time. Years ago, he decided to read a biography of every U.S. president chronologically. It took him about three years — with some bios taking longer than others.

“Rutherford B. Hayes doesn’t take a long time,” he said. “If you want to go to sleep early, that’s a good way to do it.”

His favorite is Robert Caro’s four-volume series on Lyndon Johnson. The series has taken Caro decades to write. With a fifth volume still due out, Ruckelshaus joked that he’s getting anxious because Caro is 78 years old.

He said he ran into Caro in New York a few months ago.

“I’m going to be dead before you finish with these books,” a chuckling Ruckelshaus said he told Caro. “So are you.”