RFK to run EPA?

If the rumors are anything to go by - and hey, they were right about Rahm Emanuel - environmental activist and lawyer Robert F Kennedy Jr could soon be tapped to run President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency. If true, that would tell us quite a bit about how Obama plans to approach environmental issues during his first term - and would be both good and bad news for greens.

Picking Kennedy, a political celebrity with broad support from the liberal grassroots, would send a strong signal that Obama is serious about sticking to his campaign promises of environmental reform. In picking a figurehead rather than a faceless bureaucrat, Obama would be making it clear that he intends to make the environment one of his signature issues. He’d also be showing a degree of political cunning: Kennedy would likely be able to corral the support of congressional bigwigs like his uncle, Ted Kennedy, and his close friend Hillary Clinton.

But there are downsides to the Kennedy pick, too. The EPA is currently in the throes of an institutional crisis: demoralized, underfunded and understaffed. Reversing that trend will take not just celebrity but real managerial talent - and it’s hard to find anything on Kennedy’s CV that prepares him for that task. Working as an environmental lawyer and activist simply isn’t adequate preparation for running - let alone resurrecting - a major federal agency.

In fact, Kennedy’s record suggests that he might actually make things worse, not better. In recent years, Kennedy has been waging a Quixotic struggle against the vaccination industry, touting the largely discredited claim that a mercury-based preservative used in the vaccines could cause autism. That’s not in itself a deal-breaker, of course, but in building his case Kennedy has proven willing to cherry-pick studies that support his views, belittle scientists who argue against him, and misrepresent and misquote researchers and other experts. That’s a pretty troubling character flaw, given that one of Kennedy’s first tasks as head of the EPA would be to restore the primacy of science at the agency, and to roll back the politicization that took place under Bush.

It's a good sign, of course, that Obama wants to sprinkle a little stardust on the EPA. Still, there will be plenty of other opportunities to bring environmental celebrities into the mix; Al Gore and Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, would both likely be open to taking symbolic roles in an Obama administration. At the EPA, it's more important that Obama appoints a chief who understands the nuts and bolts of the agency, and - above all - who believes wholeheartedly in the sanctity of the scientific process.


RFK also opposed the offshore wind project in Nantucket Sound which shows he can be a NIMBY. But a high-profile, charismatic figure as a figurehead with an experienced bureaucrat like Dan Esty as his deputy could be a good strategic move both inward and outward