By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 26, 2008 8:42 AM
White House officials last December sought to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from submitting a proposed rule that would limit greenhouse-gas emissions on the grounds they pose a threat to public welfare, agency sources said yesterday. And upon learning that EPA had hit the "send" button just minutes earlier, the White House called again to demand that the e-mail be recalled.
The EPA official who forwarded the e-mail, Associate Deputy Administrator Jason Burnett, refused, said the sources, who insisted on anonymity in order to discuss internal deliberations.
The proposed rule was EPA's response to an April 2007 Supreme Court ruling that the agency had violated the Clean Air Act by refusing to take up the issue of regulating automobile emissions that contribute to global warming.
Burnett, who resigned from the agency this month, sent the e-mail to the White House Office of Management and Budget at 2:17 p.m. Dec. 5 and received the call warning him to hold off at 2:25 p.m., the sources said. The EPA is expected to release a watered-down version of its original proposal within a week, highlighting the extent to which Bush administration officials continue to resist mandatory federal limits on emissions linked to global warming.
The New York Times reported Wednesday that White House officials never opened EPA's e-mail. In March, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee disclosed documents showing that the White House had overruled EPA's findings on the impact of vehicle emissions on climate change.
Burnett refused to comment on the White House calls but said in an interview, "In early December, I sent an e-mail with the formal finding that action must be taken to address the risk of climate change," adding that he resigned his political appointment because the agency had been stymied in its efforts to respond to the Supreme Court. "The White House made it clear they did not want to address the ramifications of that finding and have decided to leave the challenge to the next administration. Some [at the White House] thought that EPA had mistakenly concluded that climate change endangers the public. It was no mistake."
The Supreme Court ruling held that the Clean Air Act compelled the government to determine whether greenhouse gases endanger public health or the environment. Agency Administrator Stephen L. Johnson is expected to issue an "advance notice of proposed rulemaking" this week or next that outlines the issues but takes no stand on whether to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto declined to comment on the exchange, saying in an e-mail: "We don't comment on internal deliberations. As Steve Johnson said, both publicly and in congressional testimony, this was a decision he made on his own."
Congressional Democrats and several public health and environmental advocates said the fact that EPA changed its proposal under White House pressure will delay implementation of a national cap on carbon emissions and affect upcoming rules on fuel economy standards for automobiles.
Less than two weeks after EPA submitted its proposed rule on greenhouse gases, President Bush signed legislation that raises the fleetwide average fuel economy standard to 35 miles per gallon by 2020, arguing that this step would be more effective in limiting emissions. On Dec. 19, Johnson cited that law in denying California's petition for a waiver to allow it to directly limit greenhouse gases from vehicles.
EPA's original December proposal included language saying that climate change poses a threat to public welfare, but the draft that Johnson is preparing to issue will seek comments only on "whether" it poses such a danger, the sources said. It will also be shorter than the original document, which ran about 250 pages and included detailed alternative approaches on how to regulate greenhouse gases from fuels, vehicles and stationary sources such as power plants.
One EPA official said agency staff had encountered fierce opposition from Bush appointees on several of these sections. "They don't even want us to talk about alternatives," the official said, adding that Johnson and his top aides have been in an "intense negotiation" with White House officials on how much to alter the rulemaking, with Johnson working to resist major changes.
"The White House has found EPA's draft finding to be radioactive in three key areas," said S. William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. "It validates the approval of California's waiver to regulate greenhouse gases from motor vehicles. It demonstrates that the Transportation Department's proposed fuel economy standards fall far short of what is technologically feasible and cost-effective. And it makes a strong case supporting how the existing Clean Air Act can be used to regulate greenhouse gases."