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Political influence at EPA cited
Question of the Day
The head of the Environmental Protection Agency initially supported giving California and other states full or partial permission to limit tailpipe emissions — but reversed himself after hearing from the White House, a report said yesterday.
The report by the Democratic staff of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee cites sworn depositions by high-level EPA officials. It amounts to the first solid evidence of the political interference suspected by Democrats and environmentalists since Administrator Stephen Johnson denied California's waiver request in December.
Mr. Johnson's decision also blocked more than a dozen other states that wanted to follow California's lead and regulate greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks. It was applauded by the auto industry and supported by the White House, which has opposed mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions.
Mr. Johnson, a 27-year career veteran of the EPA, frequently has denied that his decisions are being directed by the White House. "I am the decision maker," Mr. Johnson said yesterday, meeting with reporters at Platt's Energy Podium newsmaker session, before the California waiver report surfaced.
A White House spokeswoman denied interference.
"No," said Kristen Hellmer, spokeswoman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, when asked whether the White House sought to influence Mr. Johnson on the California waiver. "He made an independent decision."
But that's not what staff of the Oversight Committee, chaired by California Democratic Rep. Henry A. Waxman, concluded after deposing eight EPA officials and reviewing more than27,000 pages of EPA documents, some obtained under subpoena.
Perhaps the strongest evidence came from EPA Associate Deputy Administrator Jason Burnett, a political appointee.
Under oath, Mr. Burnett told committee staff that Mr. Johnson "was very interested in a full grant of the waiver" in August and September 2007 and later thought a partial grant — allowing the waiver for two or three years — "was the best course of action."
Mr. Johnson's position changed after he communicated with the White House, Mr. Burnett said.
Mr. Burnett also said there was White House input into the December letter to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announcing the rationale for denying the waiver, and into the formal decision document released in February.
The committee was stymied in its attempts to discover the extent and rationale for the White House's involvement.
Mr. Burnett refused to answer questions about whom Mr. Johnson talked to and when, saying EPA told him not to respond.
Also, EPA continues to withhold documentation of telephone calls and meetings in the White House. The committee said that the White House Counsel's Office has told them EPA has 32 such documents and has described them as "indicative of deliberations at the very highest level of government."
"It appears that the White House played a significant role in the reversal of the EPA position," the report concludes.
EPA spokesman Jonathan Shradar dismissed the report as "nothing new."
"Administrator Johnson was presented with and reviewed a wide range of options and made his decision based on the facts and the law," Mr. Shradar said. "Distraction-oriented, political tactics of the committee will not keep EPA from moving forward, tackling tough issues and putting into place the most health-protective standards ever."
By Michael P. Orsi
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