A memo released Tuesday shows an agency within the Obama administration objected to a landmark Environmental Protection Agency ruling on global warming, arguing that it was not based on sound science and could prove costly to businesses.
The dispute concerns the EPA's so-called "endangerment finding," in which the agency has tentatively found carbon dioxide is dangerous enough as a greenhouse gas to warrant regulation under the Clean Air Act - a ruling that could force federal action to address climate change even if Congress fails to act.
Critics, including some within the administration, argue that the Clean Air Act is not an appropriate vehicle to deal with climate change and say the finding sets the stage for harmful regulations on businesses and industry.
Republicans seized upon the memo as evidence that President Obama has broken his pledge to follow science rather than politics in making policy. But an administration official said the objection came from a single office that is headed by a Bush administration holdover.
Sen. John Barrasso, Wyoming Republican, revealed the memo at a Senate hearing where he waving a copy at EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. "It's here, nine pages. This is a smoking gun," he said.
The memo has comments from several federal agencies that reviewed the EPA's decision. It includes a complaint that the EPA's finding "rests heavily on the precautionary principle, but the amount of acknowledged lack of understanding about basic facts surrounding [greenhouse gases] seem to stretch the precautionary principle to providing for regulation in the face of unprecedented uncertainty."
The White House defended the science EPA used and denied there was a policy split within the administration. The comments were compiled by the White House Office of Management and Budget as part of a standard interagency review process, and OMB Director Peter R. Orszag said that OMB agreed with EPA's initial finding.
"The bottom line is that OMB would have not concluded [the] review, which allows the finding to move forward, if we had concerns about whether EPA's finding was consistent with either the law or the underlying science," he wrote.
An administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the internal review process, said the comments challenging the science came from a single office, the Small Business Administration's Office of Advocacy.
The office, an independent arm of the administration whose current chief was named by President George W. Bush, is charged with looking out for small-business interests as the federal government writes rules and regulations.
Still, Republicans said the memo exposed a rift inside the administration.
"The disclosure of this OMB memo suggests that a political decision was made to put special interests ahead of middle-class families and small businesses struggling in this recession," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.
"It is unacceptable that this critical information was withheld and the regulatory process was abused in this fashion."
At the hearing, before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Mrs. Jackson disputed Mr. Barrasso's characterizations, saying the EPA finding had been drafted under the Bush administration but held under lock and key until Mr. Obama took the White House. She said she reviewed and approved the finding.
She also said the finding doesn't guarantee carbon dioxide would be capped under the Clean Air Act.
"It does not mean regulation," Mrs. Jackson said. "I have said over and over, as has the president, that we do understand that there are costs to the economy of addressing global warming emissions and the best way to address them is through a gradual move to a market-based program like cap-and-trade."
The cap-and-trade proposal would set an overall ceiling for greenhouse-gas emissions and allow businesses and other polluters to trade emission permits under the cap.
An EPA spokeswoman said Mrs. Jackson would consider the dissenting views from within the administration when drafting a final "endangerment finding."
"As we do with any proposed rule, EPA takes these interagency comments under advisement," said EPA spokeswoman Adora Andy.
In making the initial finding, EPA acted in accordance with a court order, which said the agency must determine whether carbon dioxide was dangerous enough to deserve regulation under the Clean Air Act.
The Obama administration has walked a fine line with the finding - playing down its potential for regulating carbon dioxide while supporters have heralded it as a backup plan should climate legislation fail. Mr. Obama's team has consistently said EPA regulations would be a dull tool and prefers that Congress come up with a solution.
House lawmakers are weighing a plan to address climate change through the "cap-and-trade" system, but the proposal is facing early opposition in a House committee.
The memo was first reported by Dow Jones Newswire, and the intra-administration dispute could give opponents ammunition for a legal challenge to EPA's finding.