EPA Won't Act on Emissions This Year

By Juliet Eilperin and R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 11, 2008

The Bush administration has decided not to take any new steps to regulate greenhouse gas emissions before the president leaves office, despite pressure from the Supreme Court and broad accord among senior federal officials that new regulation is appropriate now.

The Environmental Protection Agency plans to announce today that it will seek months of further public comment on the threat posed by global warming to human health and welfare -- a matter that federal climate experts and international scientists have repeatedly said should be urgently addressed.

The Supreme Court, in a decision 15 months ago that startled the government, ordered the EPA to decide whether human health and welfare are being harmed by greenhouse gas pollution from cars, power plants and other sources, or to provide a good explanation for not doing so. But the administration has opted to postpone action instead, according to interviews and documents obtained by The Washington Post.

To defer compliance with the Supreme Court's demand, the White House has walked a tortured policy path, editing its officials' congressional testimony, refusing to read documents prepared by career employees and approved by top appointees, requesting changes in computer models to lower estimates of the benefits of curbing carbon dioxide, and pushing narrowly drafted legislation on fuel-economy standards that officials said was meant to sap public interest in wider regulatory action.

The decision to solicit further comment overrides the EPA's written recommendation from December. Officials said a few senior White House officials were unwilling to allow the EPA to state officially that global warming harms human welfare. Doing so would legally trigger sweeping regulatory requirements under the 45-year-old Clean Air Act, one of the pillars of U.S. environmental protection, and would cost utilities, automakers and others billions of dollars while also bringing economic benefits, EPA's analyses found.

"They argued that this increase in regulation should be on the next president's record," not Bush's, said a participant in the lengthy interagency debate, referring principally to officials in the office of Vice President Cheney, on the White House Council on Environmental Quality, on the National Economic Council and in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

Several EPA officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that throughout the process, White House officials instructed the agency to change their calculations with the aim of reducing the "social cost of carbon," a regulatory term that reflects the economic burdens stemming from greenhouse gas emissions.

Career EPA officials argued that the global benefits of reducing carbon are worth at least $40 per ton, but Bush appointees changed the final document to say the figure is just an example, not an official estimate. They prohibited the agency from submitting a 21-page document titled "Technical Support Document on Benefits of Reducing GHG Emissions" as part of today's announcement.

"The administration didn't want to show a high-dollar value for reducing carbon," said one EPA official, adding that the administration cut dozens of pages from a draft that outlined cost-effective ways to reduce greenhouse gases.

Some officials said the administration has also minimized the benefits of tighter fuel-economy standards by assuming that oil will cost $58 a barrel in the future, compared with its current price of $141.65. While the EPA calculated in a May 30 draft that stricter standards would save U.S. society $2 trillion by 2020, officials revised that figure last month -- using the $58 estimate -- to predict that they would save only between $340 billion and $830 billion.

The proposal that the EPA will unveil today, known as an advance notice of proposed rulemaking, stands in stark contrast to the agency's original Dec. 5 finding -- backed up by a lengthy scientific analysis -- that global warming is unequivocal, that there is "compelling and robust" evidence that the emissions endanger public welfare and that the EPA administrator is "required by law" to act to protect Americans from future harm.

That finding appeared in a 37-page document prepared by an EPA task force of 60 to 70 people that was discussed at dozens of interagency meetings led by Susan Dudley, the head of the OMB's regulatory review office. She "understood that some regulation was inevitable," a participant in these meetings said, particularly since Bush promised, a month after the April 2007 Supreme Court ruling, to "take the first steps toward regulations" to curb emissions by the end of last year.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company