Currently serving as co-chair of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, Reilly was appointed by President George H.W. Bush to head the EPA in 1989. The former president of the World Wildlife Fund oversaw passage of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, an achievement Nicholas School dean William Chameides called “arguably the most significant piece of environmental legislation in the past two decades” in his introductory remarks.
Reilly is “one of the key architects of the environmental movement of the 20th and early 21st centuries,” said Chameides. “I think one of the significant characteristics of Bill’s career has been his ability to rise above partisan politics to bring people together of differing persuasions… a talent that is ever-more needed today.”
Reilly was frank about the politics of his tenure at the EPA, admitting that one reason he was able to push through some of his agenda was that Republican National Committee Chairman Lee Atwater thought the EPA’s public health work made Bush administration popular with “suburban moms,” and that the White House was much less receptive to his suggestions after the president felt stung by critics who failed to notice his environmental achievements.
Agreeing with Chameides about the tenor of the public discussion on environmental issues, Reilly, a Republican, said he was disturbed by attacks on the EPA from politicians who have called the agency “terrorists” and issued campaign materials featuring candidates shooting at copies of environmental legislation. He called for a return “to a more modulated, more reasonable, and I think more humane tone.”
Not reducing policy decisions to battles over political first principles is one way to avoid partisan bickering, Reilly said. “We made risk assessment — risk metrics —the basis for a number of our decisions,” he said. “You have a common a template, the language of which can be understood, and that way you’re debating application rather than principle.”
Shaping environmental priorities based on the president’s priorities and “the mood of the country,” rather than letting Congress dictate the EPA’s goals, is another way to avoid getting caught in political quagmires, Reilly said. “Take charge of priority-setting, tell the Congress what the priorities are,” he said. “If you do that and are noisy enough about it and repeat it often enough, pretty soon you start hearing your message coming back. And those messages were important, in my point of view, both to provide a unifying message for the agency, and also for the country. Because the country doesn’t know how to think about environmental issues — we have only to look at attitudes toward climate change to understand that.”
Reilly praised Duke’s environmental law and policy educators, saying the environmental work done at Duke “has attracted an enormous amount of attention and credibility.” Panel discussions during the daylong symposium addressed the EPA’s past and future, and the agencies interaction with politics, the courts, and emerging science. Among leading environmental law and policy thinkers from government, academia and industry who participated in the symposium, were Ryke Longest, director of Duke's Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, James Salzman, a professor of law and environmental policy at Duke, Jonathan Wiener, who holds appointments at the Law School, the Nicholas School, and the Sanford School of Public Policy, Christopher Schroeder, a professor of law and public policy at Duke who is currently serving as head of the Office of Legal Policy in the Department of Justice, and Nicholas Institute Director Timothy Profeta, a 1997 Duke law School graduate.