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Ex-EPA Official Says White House Pulled Rank

Former EPA official Jason Burnett testified that EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson was going to approve the California exemption but was overruled.
Former EPA official Jason Burnett testified that EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson was going to approve the California exemption but was overruled. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
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By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A former Environmental Protection Agency official yesterday contradicted EPA administrator Stephen L. Johnson's congressional testimony on one of the administration's key global warming decisions, saying the White House ordered Johnson to block California's bid to regulate vehicles' tailpipe emissions.

On Jan. 24, Johnson told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee under oath that he had made the decision on his own after determining there was no compelling evidence to justify California's plans. "The responsibility for making the decision for California rests with me and solely with me," Johnson said at the time. "I made the decision. It was my decision. It was the right decision."

Yesterday, however, former EPA deputy associate administrator Jason K. Burnett -- who resigned last month and has since divulged key details about how President Bush and his deputies have influenced the agency's decisions on climate policy -- testified before the committee that Johnson had concluded that California's request was legally justified -- until White House officials ordered him to reverse the decision.

California had sought a waiver under the Clean Air Act to implement rules aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles by 30 percent between 2009 and 2016. Johnson announced in late December that he would not grant the waiver, effectively blocking 17 other states that had either adopted or pledged to implement California's proposed rules.

Burnett told the panel that Johnson had concluded that California had met the legal requirement for a waiver by showing it faced "compelling and extraordinary circumstances" in light of the threat that climate change poses to the state.

"There was no reasonable defense of a denial," Burnett said, adding that Johnson had initially agreed to grant California a "partial waiver" lasting several years.

Johnson reversed course after consulting with the White House, Burnett recalled. After several conversations with White House officials about the possibility that the waiver could lead states to impose varying fuel economy standards, "the administrator knew the president's preference for a single standard," Burnett said.

In his January appearance before the committee, Johnson said he based his decision to refuse the waiver on the fact that "California does not meet the compelling and extraordinary conditions" to seek the exemption.

Johnson also testified about the waiver decision before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on May 20, making similar statements and refusing to discuss conversations he had on the matter with either Bush or his top aides on the grounds that it would violate executive privilege. EPA spokesman Jonathan Shradar said Johnson had undergone "a long process" of thinking through how to treat California's request before ultimately deciding that it was unwarranted.

"The administrator has said it was his decision and his alone," Shradar said, adding that it was not surprising that he engaged in a back-and-forth discussion with his staff. "You don't just wake up and say, 'This is the decision.' "

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate committee, said Burnett's testimony "raises serious concerns about the account of events provided to the committee, including statements by Administrator Johnson."

Saying she believed Bush took "unlawful" action in refusing to regulate greenhouse gases linked to global warming, Boxer said she would continue pressing to get a full accounting of how the White House has shaped national climate policy. "We're going to get to the truth," Boxer said.

Burnett, a 31-year old heir to a Silicon Valley fortune who showed up for his Senate appearance with a personal public relations representative by his side, has infuriated many Bush administration officials with his revelations about White House actions on climate policy. More than half a dozen EPA career officials interviewed this month, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity, remembered Burnett as an administration loyalist who repeatedly sided with the White House while at the agency and gave no hint he was dissatisfied with Bush's approach to global warming.

"Jason, all of a sudden, has found his voice," one career official said wryly. "Jason Burnett was part of making these policies. When he was at EPA he did not have the conscience he's expressing now, this green conscience."

Bush officials emphasize that Burnett -- who has donated more than $120,000 to Democratic candidates in recent years -- no longer represents the administration.

"I think everyone concedes that if Jason Burnett was the administrator, he would have taken a different route," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto. "But he's not the administrator."

Boxer's staff is reviewing the discrepancies between Johnson's and Burnett's testimony to determine if false statements were made, an aide said. The EPA's decision to deny California's waiver is being challenged in federal court, but air policy experts said the case would be decided on the law, not the process that led to the policy.

"I wish I could say [Burnett's testimony is] important in the development of policy," said Jeffrey R. Holmstead, who directed the EPA's Office of Air and Radiation from 2001 to 2005 and now heads the environmental strategies group at the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani. "I don't think it is."


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