EPA Does White House Bidding

Who is calling the shots at the Environmental Protection Agency?

The EPA has recently denied California’s request for tougher auto pollution standards, even though most legal experts think the denial won’t stand up in court. The agency also proposed ambient air quality standards for ozone that aren’t as strict as most scientists think are needed.

EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson insists that he is making these decisions, not his bosses in the White House. “With regard to the White House, for virtually every statute I am bound to oversee, I am the decision-maker, whether it be the NAAQS [ozone] standard or any other decision, is my decision — the California [waiver] decision— it is my decision and my decision alone,” he told a group of reporters at the Platts Energy Podium (http://platts.com/energypodium/index.xml/) on May 19. “I know some really want to make intrigue or conspiracy, but it’s just not there. I have spent hours upon hours upon hours and I’ve made these decisions.”

The trouble with this interpretation is that it flies in the face of documents obtained by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and of interviews with EPA staff conducted by House investigators. The documents and interviews show that, on the California waiver decision, the career staff at EPA unanimously saw granting California’s request as the only legally defensible option. In addition, Johnson himself also supported granting, at least in part, the petition—that is, until he heard from the White House. “Administrator Johnson reversed his position after communications with officials in the White House,” House investigators conclude in a May 19 memo (http://oversight.house.gov/documents/20080519131253.pdf).

On the ozone standard, EPA’s expert advisory panel and Johnson both signed off on a rule that set a secondary standard limiting ozone exposure over a three month period. The draft rule was ready to go in time to meet a court-ordered deadline. But according to the documents, “the evening before the court-ordered deadline, EPA was informed that the President had rejected the position of the EPA Administrator and the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee.” (http://oversight.house.gov/documents/20080520094002.pdf)

The agency responded by scrambling to water down the rule. But “the EPA staff questioned both the legality and the motivation for the last-minute change in the secondary standard,” according to the House report. Commented an agency associate director: “Looks like pure politics.”

It does look that way.

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