Tuesday, February 26, 2008

EPA chief warned not to deny California on emission standard

WASHINGTON - A Environmental Protection Agency official warned her boss, EPA chief Stephen Johnson, that if he denied California's bid to enforce its own tailpipe emissions rules, the agency's credibility "will be irreparably damaged" and Johnson would have to think about resigning.

Margot Oge, the head of EPA's office of transportation and air quality, also told Administrator Johnson in an Oct. 17 memo that "there is no legal or technical justification for denying this," despite "alternative interpretations that have been suggested by the automakers."

These internal warnings were included in EPA documents released Tuesday by Sen. Barbara Boxer, the California Democrat who chairs the Environment Committee and had requested the records.

Johnson turned down California's request for a waiver from the Clean Air Act on Dec. 19, after months of review. He overruled the recommendations of senior staff members, according to several media reports, and the documents released Tuesday provide some examples.

Boxer said the documents showed "an agency in crisis," and called on the EPA to release additional documents about meetings with White House officials.

"The documents show the dedicated, professional staff working hard to protect our health and our environment," Boxer said. "We see more and more evidence of Administrator Johnson ignoring the science and the facts, and discarding the advice of his staff."

Boxer plans to question Johnson today when he appears before the committee to defend the EPA's proposed budget.

Johnson has defended his decision, announced the day a new energy bill was signed into law. He said the higher fuel economy standards contained in that bill precluded the need for state initiatives to tackle greenhouse-gas emissions.

Oge's office and other legal and technical staffers sent e-mails and memos citing California's long history of receiving EPA waivers - only two of the state's 95 requests had been even partially denied - and the case California had made for its own greenhouse-gas emissions standards. At least 16 other states are prepared to adopt the California standards if they are approved.

"I think Johnson now appreciates that there are additional conditions in California that make them vulnerable to climate change," a staffer wrote others in the EPA climate change division on Oct. 31.

Oge's "talking points" for Johnson, prepared by deputy director Christopher Grundler, recognized the historic nature of the decision and the pressures Johnson faced. The auto industry and the Bush administration's Department of Transportation lobbied against the California regulations, which in the absence of federal regulations were the most ambitious effort to tackle emissions causing global warming.

"Clearly the stakes are huge, especially with respect to future climate work," Oge's Oct. 17 memo for Johnson said. "You have to find a way to get this done. If you cannot, you will face a pretty big personal decision about whether you are able to stay in the job under those circumstances."

William Reilly, a former EPA administrator in President George H.W. Bush's administration, also worked with Oge and other top staffers in an unsuccessful effort to persuade Johnson to grant the waiver, according to members of Boxer's staff.

On May 1, when Johnson prepared to attend a White House meeting on the issue, his staff prepared a power point presentation noting the history of California waivers, and that "Congress wanted California to be afforded the broadest possible discretion" with such regulations.

The EPA did not turn over documents about that May 1 meeting.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger quickly sued the EPA in early January to reverse its decision. Because of the litigation, EPA officials said they do not want to disclose additional documents that could be used against them in court. They had asked that the documents turned over to the committee be kept confidential, but Boxer decided to release them.

Boxer said she expected the next president would overturn the EPA decision because Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and Republican John McCain support California's waiver request.

"But why on earth should we wait that long?" Boxer said. "We're only wasting time and money."

By Frank Davies Mercury News Washington Bureau
Article Launched: 02/26/2008 03:55:15 PM PST
AP Photo

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