White House Role Cited in EPA Reversal on Emissions

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 20, 2008; Page A06

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen L. Johnson favored giving California some authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks last year before he consulted with the White House and reversed course, congressional investigators said yesterday.

The five-month probe by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee drew upon more than 27,000 pages of internal EPA documents and interviews with eight key agency officials, and it provides the most detailed look yet at the administration's mid-December decision.

California sought permission to implement rules aimed at cutting its vehicles' greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent between 2009 and 2016. 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, but the administration's refusal to grant a waiver under the Clean Air Act has blocked the rules from taking effect.

According to the agency's documents and depositions by staff members, EPA officials unanimously endorsed granting California the waiver, and Johnson initially agreed. EPA Associate Deputy Administrator Jason Burnett testified under oath that Johnson "was very interested in a full grant of the waiver" in August and September of 2007 and later thought a partial grant of the waiver "was the best course of action."

Burnett told the panel he thought Johnson had told White House officials that he supported a partial waiver and said there was "White House input into the rationale" for the Dec. 19 letter announcing EPA's complete denial of the waiver.

Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who will hold a hearing on the matter today, said the probe showed that President Bush had crossed a line. "The president has broad authority, but he is not above the law," Waxman said.

But EPA spokesman Jonathan Shradar said the committee's report is "nothing new," because Johnson has consistently maintained that he considered various opinions when deciding how to rule.

"Administrator Johnson was presented with and reviewed a wide range of options and made his decision based on the facts and the law," Shradar wrote in an e-mail. "At the end of the day it was the Administrator's decision alone, and he stands by the decision."

The committee's revelations could provide fodder for the administration's critics, who are trying to obtain the waiver through legal and legislative means. More than a dozen states and a coalition of environmental groups are seeking to overturn the waiver denial in federal court, and congressional Democrats are pushing a bill that would reverse the decision through legislation. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will vote on the bill Wednesday.

Mary D. Nichols, who chairs the California Air Resources Board, said in a statement: "While EPA fiddles and we burn, consumers are being denied the right to purchase cars that are cleaner and save money at the pump."

David Doniger, policy director at the climate center of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group, said his organization and other plaintiffs in the lawsuit will include the committee's findings in a brief they will submit to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

"Seeing what really happened is going to help a court understand just how illegitimate and political EPA's decision really was," Doniger said.

It remains unclear how exactly senior Bush officials intervened in the decision. Burnett said he was instructed not to answer questions about the White House's involvement, and the White House maintains that Johnson was not influenced by his talks with White House officials.

"As Administrator Johnson said in his statement, he made an independent decision and his decision was based on the facts and the law," said Kristen Hellmer, spokeswoman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Johnson did not comment on the House probe yesterday, but he told reporters at a meeting at Platts Energy Podium, a McGraw-Hill-sponsored presentation for reporters on energy issues, that "as a practical matter" it will be up to the next administration to determine whether carbon dioxide endangers public health because of its contribution to global warming.

"Carbon dioxide is a pollutant. I accept that," Johnson said.

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