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EPA Chief Silent on White House Involvement in Key Decisions
By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, May 21, 2008 (ENS) - The head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stonewalled Democratic lawmakers Tuesday, refusing to provide information about the role the White House played in recent agency decisions involving the regulation of greenhouse gases and the finalization of a new federal smog standard. The defiance of EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson drew a sharp rebuke from the Democratic chair of the House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee, who said the EPA chief has repeatedly bowed to pressure from the White House and become "essentially a figurehead."

"My concern is decisions at EPA are not being made on the science and they are not being made on the law," said committee Chairman Henry Waxman, a California Democrat. "They are being made at the White House and they are being made for political reasons."

Congressman Henry Waxman chairs the House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee. (Photo courtesy Office of the Congressman)

Waxman said senior EPA staff had told Congressional investigators that Johnson reversed course on the smog standard, abandoning a plan to set a secondary standard designed to protect natural ecosystems from ground-level ozone, the key ingredient in smog.

The investigation by Waxman's committee found that the president weighed in with his opposition to a secondary ozone standard only hours before EPA finalized the new rule on March 12.

The EPA's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, CASAC, had recommended setting such a standard to better protect natural ecosystems from the hazards of smog. Documents show Johnson initially agreed with that recommendation. The final rule did not set a secondary standard.

Waxman also pointed to depositions from agency staff that said Johnson caved to the White House in deciding to reject California's request to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles.

He criticized the EPA chief for a second global warming decision, pointing to agency documents and testimony that indicate Johnson was prepared to push forward last December with an agency effort to begin exploring how to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant, only to abandon the plan due to White House pressure.

"Three times in the last six months you have recommended to the White House that EPA take steps to address climate change and protect the environment," Waxman told Johnson. "In each case, your positions were right on the science and the law but in each case you backed down."

Waxman added that Johnson and other administration officials have failed to fill in gaps about how the process for each of the decisions was completed and questioned the legality of the White House's involvement.

"The president apparently insisted on his judgment and overrode the unanimous recommendations of EPA scientific and legal experts," he said "Our investigation has not been able to find any evidence that the president based his decisions on the science, the record, or the law. Indeed, there's virtually no credible record of any kind in support of the decisions."

EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson (Photo courtesy EPA)
Johnson defended his actions and repeatedly stymied Democrats looking for answers. He insisted that he was solely responsible for the decisions in question and declined to provide details about his meetings with the president and other White House officials.

"I have routine meetings with the executive branch including the president those meetings are in confidence," Johnson told the committee.

Under a barrage of questions from New Hampshire Democrat Paul Hodes, Johnson refused to even acknowledge discussing the decisions with president or other White House officials.

"If I did recall, I'm not sure it would be appropriate for me to get into who said what at what time," Johnson said. "I don't believe that it is appropriate for me to discuss the nature of those conversations."

The EPA chief added that disclosing such information would limit his ability to have candid conversations with the White House about policy and regulatory matters.

President George W. Bush stands beside EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson as he takes his oath of office, May 23, 2005. (Photo by Paul Morse courtesy The White House)

Waxman grew visibly frustrated with Johnson during the nearly three hours of questioning.

"It seems to me you are being awfully evasive," Waxman said. "No one is asking you what you said, but if there was a conversation."

Johnson didn't budge, repeating that he has had "routine conversations" with White House officials on many EPA matters.

Republicans on the panel rallied to the Johnson's defense, questioning the motives behind the hearing and arguing that White House involvement in EPA decisions is neither inappropriate nor rare.

"Yes, there is undue influence but no one administration has a monopoly on that," said Representative Brian Bilbray, a California Republican.

The president is entitled by law to be involved in EPA decisions, said California Republican Darrell Issa.

With regard to the ozone standards, Issa said, the president did provide his opinion and "made no pretense" that he did not.

The president's role "does not reflect any unusual or improper action," Issa said, adding that setting a secondary standard would do little to further protect wildlife and vegetation.

The EPA chief is not obligated to "simply rubberstamp" CASAC's advice, Issa said. "By definition recommendations can be rejected."

But the head of CASAC, Dr. Rogene Henderson, and Democrats on the panel said they wanted to know the reasoning behind the decision and why Johnson gave in to the White House.

The advice that appears to be trumping CASAC "is not transparent," Henderson told the committee. "Willful ignorance triumphed over sound science."

Johnson replied that he made the decision "based on all the science before me" and praised the transparency of the process.

"This is good government," he said.

The EPA chief took issue with the report that he had initially supported partially granting the California waiver, saying he had considered a wide range of "legally defensible" options before denying the request.

"I evaluated all options," Johnson said.

He also told the committee that EPA does intend to move forward with a preliminary notice for options for regulating greenhouse gases next month.

But Johnson said lawmakers should develop a new law to tackle carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, rather than relying on the Clean Air Act, which he contends is poorly designed to tackle the concern.

"A legislative fix is a much better approach to working with the intricacies of the Clean Air Act and the likely litigation that would ensue," he said.

That comment drew another rebuke from the committee chair.

"Even if you'd like another law you have to enforce the law that is there," Waxman said.

The California Democrat told Johnson he would continue to push for additional documents and information about the three decisions.

"You are trying to shield the White House from reasonable oversight," Waxman said. "Unless you assert executive privilege we expect compliance with the subpoenas."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.

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