By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 20, 2007
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen L. Johnson yesterday denied California's petition to limit greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks, overruling the unanimous recommendation of the agency's legal and technical staffs.
The decision set in motion a legal battle that EPA's lawyers expect to lose and demonstrated the Bush administration's determination to oppose any mandatory measures specifically targeted at curbing global warming pollution. A total of 18 states, representing 45 percent of the nation's auto market, have either adopted or pledged to implement California's proposed tailpipe emissions rules, which seek to cut vehicles' greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent between 2009 and 2016.
In a telephone news conference last night, Johnson said he thinks that the higher fuel-economy standards and increased renewable-fuel requirements in the energy bill President Bush signed into law yesterday will do more to address global warming than imposing tailpipe rules in individual states.
"The Bush administration is moving forward with a clear national solution, not a confusing patchwork of state rules, to reduce America's climate footprint from vehicles," Johnson said. "President Bush and Congress have set the bar high, and, when fully implemented, our federal fuel-economy standard will achieve significant benefits by applying to all 50 states."
The new mileage standard mandated by Congress is aimed at reducing gasoline consumption, which will reduce vehicles' overall "carbon footprint," but California's rules would target total greenhouse gas emissions, including those that stem from auto air conditioning units. Experts said tailpipe regulations are a more comprehensive way to address vehicles' contribution to greenhouse gases.
Johnson said that California standards would produce a mileage average of 33.8 mpg by 2016, while the new federal energy law would require an average fleet fuel economy of 35 mpg by 2020. But California officials said EPA had miscalculated, estimating that its emissions standard would achieve an average of at least 36 mpg by 2016.
Environmentalists and state officials lambasted Johnson's decision and pledged to sue to overturn it. In the past three months, federal judges in Vermont and California have twice rebuffed automakers' attempts to block state tailpipe regulations. The auto industry had also lobbied the White House and EPA to block the California regulation, and the Detroit News reported that chief executives of Ford and Chrysler met with Vice President Cheney last month to discuss the issue.
"By refusing to grant California's waiver request for its new motor vehicle standards to control greenhouse gas emissions, the administration has ignored the clear and very limited statutory criteria upon which this decision was to be based," said S. William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, which represents officials in 48 states. "Instead, it has issued a verdict that is legally and technically unjustified and indefensible."
EPA's lawyers and policy staff had reached the same conclusion, said several agency officials familiar with the process. In a PowerPoint presentation prepared for the administrator, aides wrote that if Johnson denied the waiver and California sued, "EPA likely to lose suit."
If he allowed California to proceed and automakers sued, the staff wrote, "EPA is almost certain to win."
The technical and legal staffs cautioned Johnson against blocking California's tailpipe standards, the sources said, and recommended that he either grant the waiver or authorize it for a three-year period before reassessing it.
"Nobody told the administration they support [a denial], and it has the most significant legal challenges associated with it," said one source, in an interview several hours before Johnson's announcement, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official is not authorized to speak for the agency. "The most appropriate action is to approve the waiver."
Asked about his aides' recommendations, Johnson said, "My staff provided me a range of options, with a lot of pros and cons with each of these options."
Frank O'Donnell, who heads the advocacy group Clean Air Watch, noted that Johnson's announcement came shortly after yesterday's bipartisan celebration at the White House of the new energy law.
"Only hours after having a love fest over the energy bill, the Bush administration turned it into a hate fest for California and more than a dozen other states seeking to limit greenhouse gases from motor vehicles," O'Donnell said.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, vowed to scrutinize Johnson's ruling. The EPA has yet to produce the "decision documents" it customarily presents to outline its justification for a new ruling.
"EPA's decision ignores the law, science and common sense," Waxman said in a statement. "This is a policy dictated by politics and ideology, not facts. The committee will be investigating how and why this decision was made."
California, which is allowed under the Clean Air Act to set its own air pollution policies as long as it obtains an exemption from the federal government, had never been denied a waiver in the law's 37-year history.
William K. Reilly, who served as EPA administrator under President George H.W. Bush and approved nine California waivers during that time, questioned why the administration challenged the state's historical role as an innovator in air pollution policy.
"What I want to know from the [administration] is: What possible grounds would there possibly be to deny California this waiver?" asked Reilly, who co-chairs the bipartisan National Commission on Energy Policy, a group of energy experts. "There's every reason to defer to California in making these decisions."
In his telephone call with reporters, Johnson said this waiver decision was "different" because climate change affects the entire world.
"It is a global problem that requires a clear national solution," he said. When asked whether the energy law represents the administration's full response to the challenge of global warming, he replied, "Certainly for motor vehicles this is a comprehensive solution."
Staff researchers Karl Evanzz and Meg Smith contributed to this report.