White House to California: Temperatures Rising

California has always stood apart—and ahead—of the rest of the country when it comes to regulating air pollution. So when the feds last December denied its bid to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions form cars and trucks the state was none too pleased. So displeased, in fact, that tomorrow the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will vote on a bill sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer of California to overturn that denial: S.2555 would grant California the waiver necessary to require that global-warming pollution from tailpipes be reduced 30 percent by 2016.

It has a good chance, and new revelations just might have increased those chances.

Yesterday a House committee released documents and testimony showing that career staffers at the Environmental Protection Agency unanimously supported granting California’s request, and so did EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson—until the White House gave him a good talking to.

By law, the decision was supposed to be based on science and the law, and nothing else. So the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, led by Rep. Henry Waxman (another Californian) was keenly interested in why EPA denied the waiver. Over its five-month investigation, the Committee amassed 27,000-plus pages of EPA documents and deposed or interviewed eight EPA officials who, from my reading of the documents, were none too happy about it.

It sure looked as if EPA was headed toward granting the waiver. One staffer told the committee about a September 2007 meeting at which “Administrator Johnson essentially polled the room on what people’s final opinions were about granting or not granting a waiver.” Not a single staffer argued for denying California’s request. A briefing by an EPA lawyer concluded, “After review of the docket and precedent, we don’t believe there are any good arguments against granting the waiver. All of the arguments ... are likely to lose in court if we are sued.” EPA Associate Deputy Administrator Jason Burnett told the Committee that Johnson, too, supported granting California’s petition. But after “White House input into the rationale,” as Burnett put it, the answer to California was no.

Mary Nichols, head of the California environmental agency that applied for the waiver, told reporters that what looked like political tampering from the Bush Administration was “completely illegal, supported by neither law nor science.” Sen. Dianne Feinstein said that EPA’s top leadership “has decimated the integrity of the agency, and allowed it to become a total tool of the White House.”

An EPA spokesman told Newsweek that Waxman is looking for a conspiracy that’s not there. White House spokesperson Emily Laramore declined to discuss Johnson’s conversations or how often he met with President Bush or White House staffers on the California waiver. But Bush has long made his position clear: No national mandates for cutting greenhouse emissions. And now, according to the documents, no state is going to do on its own what the White House refuses to do for the country.

--with reporting by Daniel Stone in Washington
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