EPA Seeks Comment on Emissions Rules, Then Discredits Effort

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Bush administration yesterday unveiled but immediately disparaged a proposal to seek public comment on whether the government should regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act, declaring at the outset that the proposed approach would be unworkable.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen L. Johnson wrote that he is nevertheless going ahead with the process of seeking comment in order to "respond to our legal obligations in a timely manner." In April 2007, the Supreme Court 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 explain why it should not.

In an unprecedented move, however, Johnson issued the advanced notice of proposed rulemaking accompanied by a raft of comments from other agencies urging the government to abandon any effort to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases through existing law.

Johnson said in the advanced notice that limiting these emissions through the more than three-decade-old Clean Air Act "could result in an unprecedented expansion of EPA authority that would have a profound effect on virtually every sector of the economy and touch every household in the land," adding that the government should reject this approach.

"If our nation is serious about regulating greenhouse gases, the Clean Air Act is the wrong tool for the job," Johnson told reporters in a conference call. "It's really at the feet of Congress to come up with good legislation that cuts through, literally, decades of regulation and litigation."

Johnson -- as well as deputies from other agencies across the country -- had initially sided with his staff last year and concluded that the Clean Air Act legally obligated the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases on the grounds that they endangered public welfare. But after the White House refused to open an e-mail from the EPA making that finding, and President Bush signed legislation tightening national fuel economy standards, Johnson announced that he would shift course and simply solicit public comment.

The move ensures that the next president, and the next Congress, will have to take up the question of regulating greenhouse gases. Last month, the Senate shelved a bipartisan bill that would cap such emissions -- sponsored by Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John W. Warner (R-Va.).

Johnson said he chose to include the critical comments from other agency heads in the interest of "transparency. . . . In my 27 years at EPA, I don't recall an administrator doing what I have just done."

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said in a statement that the president had asked Johnson to include both his agency's proposal and the documents highlighting opposition to the plan.

"As the comments from other Cabinet secretaries and administration officials make clear, the onerous command-and-control regulation contemplated in the EPA staff draft would impose crippling costs on the economy in the form of a massive hidden tax, without even ensuring that the intended overall emissions reductions occur," Perino said.

Yesterday's rulemaking documents include a letter in which the secretaries of agriculture, commerce, transportation and energy rejected the idea of using the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

"The EPA staff has now prepared a draft suggesting that the Clean Air Act can be both workable and effective for addressing global climate change by regulating emissions from stationary and mobile sources of virtually every kind," the four secretaries wrote on July 9. "Our agencies have serious concerns with this suggestion because it does not recognize the enormous -- and we believe, insurmountable -- burdens, difficulties, and costs, and likely limited benefits, of using the Clean Air Act to regulate GHG emissions."

In a letter dated July 10, Susan E. Dudley, administrator of the White House Office of Management and Budget's office of information and regulatory affairs, was similarly blunt.

"The issues raised during interagency review are so significant that we have been unable to reach interagency consensus in a timely way, and as a result, this staff draft cannot be considered Administration policy or representative of the views of the Administration," Dudley wrote.

John Walke, director of the Clean Air Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group, said the administration had squandered a chance to address the challenge of climate change.

"This appalling document pits the Bush administration's political machinery against EPA's scientific and legal experts, with the machinery grinding up sound global warming science, legal authority, smart economics and solutions to the problem," Walke said. "These actions by the administration's political machinery deserve to end up, along with the administration's irresponsible global warming legacy, in the dustbin of history."

Business and conservative groups, however, hailed the administration's move, saying that the federal government should not rush to issue sweeping curbs on greenhouse gas pollution.

William L. Kovacs, vice president for environmental policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the administration's decision to incorporate the critique of the EPA staff's findings in the proposal showed that Bush would not move to regulate carbon dioxide even though the EPA had concluded that this could be done under current law.

"It's very significant, because the last I checked, the president of the United States runs the United States," Kovacs said in an interview. "The staff of EPA has put forward a proposal that would virtually destroy the United States. They had to make it clear to the staff of EPA that they're running the government, not EPA."

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