The surprise announcement indicates the administration may continue to pursue an environmental policy that de-emphasizes federal regulations in favor of market-based strategies and devolution to state environmental authorities.
Bush praised Leavitt's environmental record, saying, "He respects the ability of state and local governments" to meet environmental standards, and "rejects the old ways of command and control from above."
The selection of Leavitt provoked the usual polarization: support from Republicans and business groups, while Democrats and their environmental supporters generally criticized the nominee.
If confirmed by the Senate, Leavitt will succeed former New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman, whose performance generally failed to satisfy environmentalists even as it often provoked mistrust within the administration and its industry allies.
The confirmation hearings are to be scheduled in September, and will likely provide a forum for Democrats to attack the administration's environmental record. Two Senate Democrats who are presidential candidates, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass, and Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., used the Leavitt announcement to issue statements denouncing Bush's environmental record.
The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) expressed industry's hopes that Leavitt would increase state control over environmental regulation and enforcement.
"His generally federalist approach will return primary responsibility for environmental law implementation and enforcement back to the individual states…who know their own particular needs and circumstances better than Washington does," commented Jeffrey Marks, NAM's director of air quality.
Bucking the generally negative reaction of environmentalists was Vickie Patton, a senior attorney with Environmental Defense's Rocky Mountain Colorado office. Patton said she has worked with Leavitt in addressing western air quality issues.
"Our experience with Gov. Leavitt is that he's provided a leadership role and worked to bring people with very diverse viewpoints together to address some complex air quality challenges in the west," said Patton.
The Environmental Defense attorney argued that it is simplistic to see federal power and states' rights as competing interests, as a sound environmental policy requires a partnership between national and state governments.
Leavitt has also championed market-based strategies to address environmental issues, including haze pollution in national parks. Patton praised this approach, but cautioned that the free market is not an appropriate way to tackle all environmental problems, and cited toxic waste as an example.
A critical question that is unanswerable at present, is how much authority the White House will give to Leavitt.
"Gov. Whitman in the end had very limited discretion to make her own decision on really key issues of national environmental policy," Patton asserted. "It remains to be seen how much latitude the administration will give Gov. Leavitt."