Official: White House influenced EPA ruling on California emissions

McClatchy NewspapersMay 19, 2008 

WASHINGTON — Environmental Protection Agency chief Stephen Johnson was interested in granting California's petition to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks, but later changed his mind and denied it after meetings with White House officials, an EPA official told congressional investigators in testimony released Monday.

The official, Jason Burnett, also told investigators that other EPA officials had instructed him not to answer questions about the White House's role in the decision, according to a memo from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

The committee has been investigating for five months how Johnson made his decision in December to reject California's tougher motor vehicle standards. The House panel and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee are looking into whether Johnson was under political pressure.

The memo said that the evidence before the committee suggests that the White House "played a pivotal role in the decision to reject the California petition, but it does not explain the basis of the White House intervention." It said the committee was investigating further.

Johnson and Susan Dudley, the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the White House, are expected to testify before the oversight committee on Tuesday.

"This is nothing new from the committee," said EPA press secretary Jonathan Shradar. "Administrator Johnson was presented with and reviewed a wide range of options and made his decision based on the facts and the law."

But U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., denounced what she called the White House's "arrogance." “The EPA’s top leadership has decimated the integrity of the agency, and allowed it to become a total tool of the White House," Feinstein said in a statement.

Under the 1970 Clean Air Act, California can obtain a waiver allowing it to have tougher emissions standards than those imposed by the federal government. Other states can follow California once a waiver is granted. Sixteen other states had been prepared to follow California to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles.

EPA staff urged Johnson to grant the waiver, arguing that California had a legitimate claim, but he rejected the recommendation.

"It would be a serious breach if the president or other White House officials directed (EPA) Administrator Johnson to ignore the record before the agency and deny California's petition for political or other inappropriate reasons," the memo said. It was sent from Democratic staff on the committee to committee members.

Under the Clean Air Act, EPA can reject a waiver only if the administrator finds California's request falls short of one of several criteria. One of them is that the state doesn't need the standards "to meet compelling and extraordinary conditions."

Johnson has said there was nothing unique about California's situation that supported issuing the waiver. He testified in previous congressional hearings that he alone made the decision.

The memo said that Burnett, who is EPA's associate deputy administrator, told the committee that in the late summer and early fall of 2007: "I was under the general impression that the administrator was very interested in a full grant of the waiver."

Burnett said that Johnson also wanted him to explore a middle-ground option between a full grant of the petition and a denial. "I think that the level of his interest increased. . . following the various meetings that we had both within the agency and within other parts of the executive branch."

Burnett said that he and everyone else at EPA who gave opinions about the decision recommended a full grant of the waiver.

He said that Johnson told him why he changed his mind, but Burnett did not answer when asked what the reason was.

"Administrator Johnson has been clear that he made an independent decision, and he based his decision on the facts and the law," White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore said on Monday when asked about the congressional committee's memo.

The House oversight panel, chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., has obtained 27,000 pages of documents from the EPA and information from eight officials.

The memo from the oversight committee majority staff said that a briefing prepared by the lead staff lawyer for EPA's general counsel said that "we don't believe there are any good arguments against granting the waiver" and continued: "All of the arguments . . . are likely to lose in court if we are sued."

EPA initially resisted providing many of the documents and did so only after Waxman issued subpoenas. Waxman on Friday wrote to Johnson and Dudley and told them to bring documents that the committee was still seeking under subpoenas to the hearing on Tuesday.

ON THE WEB

The memo and related documents are posted on the committee's Web site.

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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