The day after the press conference the Fort Worth Star-Telegram broke the news under the headline: “Bush Changes Position—Says He Believes in Global Warming.” Weeks later, Austin Chroniclereporter Robert Bryce pressed Bush about his commitment to capping emissions of CO2 (carbon dioxide)—even then widely accepted as a greenhouse gas that alters the earth’s atmosphere. Bryce walked away from the encounter somewhat stunned by the governor’s stated commitment to imposing caps on carbon dioxide. Bush went into the primaries and on to the White House committed to imposing caps on carbon dioxide, even if he would later find the scientific truth inconvenient. “George Bush was very clear during the course of his campaign that he believed in a multi-pollutant strategy, and that includes CO2,” said Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Christine Todd Whitman in the spring of 2001. Then the business community got to Vice President Dick Cheney, who overturned a policy based on the campaign promise Bush had made in Texas. Whitman never had a clue.
On March 1, 2001, Haley Barbour, the former national chair of the Republican Party and a name partner in an influential Washington lobbying firm, warned Dick Cheney about a “moment of truth . . . arriving in the form of a decision whether this administration’s policy will be to regulate and/or tax CO2 as a pollutant.” Barbour, now the Republican governor of Mississippi, described capping CO2 as “ecological extremism.” Bush had already announced that the U.S. would not be a party to the Kyoto accords when Whitman showed up at the Oval Office on March 13 to make her case on carbon caps. She was reminding Bush of the scientific evidence that supported the policy when the president cut her off. “Christie, I’ve already made my decision,” the president said.
Bush thus abandoned his campaign promise to cap CO2, and with it the U.S. commitment to the Kyoto accords, which would, at the very least, have imposed an international negotiating framework by which nations could have begun to reduce greenhouse gases heating up the planet. All this was done behind closed doors. It was described to journalist Ron Suskind by Bush’s first Treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill, as a “clean kill,” typical of Dick Cheney. No fingerprints. No accountability. Dick Cheney “guiding unfolding events toward the intended outcome.”
DETROIT RULES—It appears that last month the vice president exercised another “clean kill” when he blocked a California policy that would have required state regulators to increase fuel efficiency in gasoline-fueled cars to 43.5 miles per gallon by 2016.
Cheney began guiding events toward the intended outcome in November, when chief executives of Ford and Chrysler met with him in Washington, according to the Detroit News. After a two-year wait, the EPA was preparing to respond to a Clean Air Act waiver green-lighting California’s stricter new fuel-efficiency standard when Chrysler’s representative presented the vice president with a position paper. It made the case that neither California nor the EPA should be permitted to regulate greenhouse gases.
In mid-December, EPA administrator Stephen L. Johnson handed down a ruling essentially codifying the auto industry’s argument, denying the waiver request that would have authorized California regulators to start enforcing new gasoline mileage requirements.
In doing so, Johnson ignored written decisions on which his staff at the EPA had invested years of deliberation and study. One anonymous EPA staffer told the Los Angeles Times that California’s waiver application “met . . . criteria we have used for the last forty years on all the other waivers. We told him that. All the briefings we have given him laid out the facts.”
California Air Resources Board chair Mary Nichols told the L.A. Times that she had written waiver decisions when she worked at the EPA during the Clinton administration and that “California met all the criteria on this one.” A member of Nichols’s staff told the Spectator that every technical and legal requirement had been met and there was no valid reason for the EPA to deny the waiver.
Officials in California were so certain that the waiver would be granted that Attorney General Jerry Brown, with the public support of Governor Arnold Schwarzenneger, sued the EPA to compel it to act on the waiver request.
CALIFORNIA DREAMING—California prepared to move on mileage standards that would drastically reduce tailpipe emissions when Johnson ignored the recommendations of his technical and legal staffs as well as California’s air-quality regulators.
Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman, who represents smogbound Los Angeles, was explicit in his criticism. “[R]eports indicate that you overruled the unanimous recommendations of EPA’s legal and technical staffs in rejecting California’s petition,” he said in a rebuke to Johnson.
In 2005, Stephen L. Johnson was an unlikely candidate for the Cabinet-level office that had been occupied by two former governors during the first five years of George W. Bush’s presidency. Bush had appointed Christie Whitman, then governor of New Jersey, as his first EPA administrator. Whitman was followed by Michael Leavitt, who had served as governor of Utah for three terms. It was widely believed that after Bush named Leavitt secretary of Health and Human Services in 2005, he would appoint James Connaughton to lead the EPA. Connaughton, a former lobbyist for utilities, mining and chemical interests, is chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
Johnson, the director of the EPA’s Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances, had been at the agency for twenty-seven years when Bush appointed him to lead the EPA. Johnson’s supporters praised the president for choosing a career agency scientist and administrator. The mainstream environmental groups, which were geared up to critique a Connaughton nomination, found little in Johnson’s record to oppose.
Johnson did have a few critics. Clean Air Watch president Frank O’Donnell was wary of the appointment. “I remember the day he was nominated. I was standing beside [Senator] Tom Carper in Delaware,” O’Donnell said in an interview. “We were with Mike McCabe, the deputy director of the EPA in the Clinton administration. McCabe turned to me and said, ‘He’s going to be a yes man.'”
“The real story,” O’Donnell said at the time, “is that on major issues, the decisions are going to be made at the White House.”
Only one senator, Carper of Delaware, a Democrat, opposed Johnson’s appointment. “If Steve Johnson is to be an effective administrator,” Senator Carper said when Johnson was nominated, “he needs to be unfettered of this administration.” It appears that he was never unfettered.
Jim Connaughton might not have gotten the nomination. But as O’Donnell saw it, Connaughton would nonetheless be calling the shots at the EPA. Both Carper and O’Donnell foresaw the harm the EPA administrator could inflict on the environment if policy decisions were imposed on the agency by the White House and Office of the Vice President. By the end of 2007, the administration’s successful campaign to obstruct regulation of greenhouse gases was faltering, and the White House was running out of options.
In October 2006 the United States Supreme Court had ruled that the EPA could and in fact should regulate greenhouse gases. In early December of 2007 Federal District Judge Anthony Ishii in Fresno ruled against the Washington-based Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group representing ten large car and light-truck makers. It claimed that California’s attempt to curb climate-altering tailpipe gases was an unconstitutional intrusion on the federal government’s authority to regulate fuel mileage.
Unlike the EPA administrator’s ruling, Judge Ishii’s decision was informed by the law. California’s air pollution problems were so severe that the state had begun a smog-fighting campaign before the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970. So the act included an exception for the state, permitting it to put in place its own air-quality measures.
The Bush administration, acting as an agent for the automobile industry and other polluters that could be affected by a precedent regarding pollution caps, might have let California go its own way on tailpipe emissions. But the Clean Air Act allows states to choose between federal and California standards, and seventeen states were prepared to adopt California’s new rules. Defeated in federal court and unable to escape the California exception to the Clean Air Act, auto industry executives knew that only the EPA administrator could deliver them from mandatory fuel-efficiency standards. “The only hope the car manufacturers have is to go to the Bush administration,” O’Donnell said. “I’m told that inside the agency, it was very clear that the White House gave the orders, even if the EPA’s own lawyers said that what they were doing was illegal. If they denied California’s request, the agency would probably lose in court.”
And the final decision will be made in court. On January 2, California and fifteen other states sued the EPA, which will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars defending a lawsuit it will almost certainly lose. But the director of the EPA, acting at the behest of a White House serving the interests of auto makers, has effectively put off for years the implementation of the new California pollution standards. As the president did on the Kyoto accords, which expire in 2012, he has again succeeded at holding the future at bay.
Henry Waxman’s staff at the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform wants to see copies of all EPA documents Johnson relied on to reach his decision—which means “all communications between the agency and persons outside the agency including persons in the White House.” Hearings and testimony will follow.
President Bush for his part is back where he was in Austin in 1999. He again recognizes the evident reality of global warming but insists that the energy bill Congress just passed is adequate because it’s “going to do a lot to improve the greenhouse gases.” The president stands behind EPA administrator Johnson, insisting his decision on the California waiver was made with no pressure from the White House or the Office of the Vice President. And that it is sound environmental policy.
“The question is how to have an effective strategy. Is it more effective to let each state make a decision on how to proceed in curbing greenhouse gases?” Bush said. “Or is it more effective to have a national strategy?”
Seventeen states in the nation that at least once elected Bush are poised to put the stricter California standards in place. That’s 40 percent of the population, 136 million Americans and roughly half the new cars sold in the country’s car showrooms.
HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM—On November 27 a former director of the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, Jeff Holmstead, showed up at a community forum in Houston’s petrochemical infested ship channel neighborhood. It was organized by the agency to take public testimony on new regulations on refinery emissions.
Holmstead now works for Bracewell & Giuliani—Bracewell & Patterson until Rudy Giuliani joined the firm in 2005. By luck of the draw, he was seated at the witness table with José Chávez, a ship channel area resident who was being treated for throat cancer and required a Spanish-language translator to explain that he believed his cancer was caused by carcinogens released by the local industries. In a public gymnasium in a neighborhood steeped in industry pollution, Chávez had a home-court advantage.
Holmstead, representing an alliance of refiners who oppose tighter restrictions on emissions, defended the same EPA standards he had administered at the agency. He said the average American has a one in three chance of getting cancer and is more likely to be struck by lightening than to contract cancer caused by benzene at levels set by the EPA. He also said levels of carcinogens are declining under current EPA regs. He was interrupted by a member of the audience who insisted that the record show that Holmstead was paid by industry, was from Washington, D.C., and was lying about pollution levels and cancer risks.
The speaker, Mario Gallegos, is a fireman who grew up in the ship channel neighborhood he represents in the Texas senate. The senator argued with Holmestead for half an hour in the parking lot after the meeting. Gallegos complained that the data Holmstead entered into the public record contradicted independent studies by Rice University, the Baylor College of Medicine, and Texas Southern University, all of which found butadiene, benzene and other carcinogens increasing in the air around the ship channel.
The EPA is scheduled to issue a ruling on national refinery standards by August 21. That ruling will be influenced by Holmstead’s replacement at the EPA’s air and radiation office. In December the White House nominated David Hill, general counsel for the Department of Energy (DOE), to the office Holmstead left in 2005. The previous appointment, William Wehrum, left his acting Air and Radiation director’s post when California senator Barbara Boxer blocked his nomination because of his record as an industry lobbyist and his role in weakening EPA rules.
With a Democratic majority in the Senate, environmentalists are lined up to oppose Hill, arguing that his record at the DOE is an indication that he will work to weaken EPA air regulations in the final year of the Bush presidency. According to his critics, Hill worked at the DOE to weaken the EPA’s Clean Air Interstate Rule, which requires power plants in twenty-three states to reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide by 70 percent.
We will follow both the refinery emissions oversight process and Hill’s appointment in our pages in future issues.