WASHINGTON — The head of the Environmental Protection Agency initially supported giving California and other states full or partial permission to limit tailpipe emissions _ but reversed himself after hearing from the White House, a report said Monday.
The report by the Democratic staff of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee cites interviews and depositions with high-level EPA officials. It amounts to the first solid evidence of the political interference alleged by Democrats and environmentalists since Administrator Stephen Johnson denied California's waiver request in December.
Johnson's decision also blocked more than a dozen other states that wanted to follow California's lead and regulate greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks. It was applauded by the auto industry and supported by the White House, which has opposed mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions.
Johnson, a 27-year career veteran of the EPA, frequently has denied that his decisions are being directed by the White House. "I am the decision maker," Johnson said Monday, meeting with reporters at the Platt's Energy Podium newsmaker session, before the California waiver report surfaced.
A White House spokeswoman denied interference.
Johnson "made an independent decision," said Kristen Hellmer, spokeswoman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
That's not what staff of the Oversight Committee, chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., concluded after hearing from eight EPA officials and reviewing over 27,000 pages of EPA documents, some obtained under subpoena.
Perhaps the strongest evidence came from EPA Associate Deputy Administrator Jason Burnett, a political appointee.
Deposed under oath, Burnett told committee staff that Johnson "was very interested in a full grant of the waiver" in August and September of 2007 and later thought a partial grant _ allowing the waiver for two or three years _ "was the best course of action."
Johnson's position changed after Johnson communicated with the White House, Burnett said.
Burnett also said there was White House input into the December letter to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announcing the waiver denial, and into the formal decision document released in February.
The committee was stymied in its attempts to discover the extent and rationale for the White House's involvement.
Burnett refused to answer questions about whom Johnson talked to and when, saying EPA told him not to.
Also, the EPA continues to withhold documentation of contacts with the White House, the report said. The White House Counsel's office told committee investigators the EPA has 32 documents showing telephone calls or meetings involving at least one high-ranking EPA official and at least one assistant to the president or the president. The Counsel's office described these documents as "indicative of deliberations at the very highest level of government."
"It appears that the White House played a significant role in the reversal of the EPA position," the report concludes.
EPA spokesman Jonathan Shradar dismissed the report as "nothing new."
Johnson "made his decision based on the facts and the law," Shradar said. He did not respond when asked if it was true Johnson initially supported the waiver.
Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, top Republican on the Oversight Committee, asserted that if the decision had gone the other way, there would be no complaints of presidential meddling.
"Yes, the White House was involved," Davis said in a statement. "Just as President Clinton's White House was involved in 107 agency rule-makings. ... The majority's problem is not with the process; it's with the outcome."
The committee also found, as has been previously reported, that career EPA staff was unanimously in favor of granting the California waiver and believed that a denial would not stand up in court. The report detailed previously unreported attempts by political appointees to soft-pedal EPA staff conclusions supporting the waiver in presentations to Johnson, or to avoid committing them to paper.
An internal EPA e-mail said Bob Meyers, the principal deputy assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, was "not happy" that a staff conclusion that California met the waiver criteria was included in a briefing to Johnson last summer. Meyers' chief of staff suggested staff should "permanently delete the offending language and not have it arise again."
Because California began regulating air emissions before the federal government it has unique authority under the Clean Air Act to institute its own air rules if it gets a federal waiver. Other states can then follow California's rules or the federal ones. No waiver request had previously been fully denied.
California's law would have forced automakers to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent in new cars and light trucks by 2016, beginning with the 2009 model year. Thirteen other states already have adopted the standards _ Arizona, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.
Johnson justified denying the waiver by arguing that California is not alone in suffering the effects of global warming and therefore doesn't have a compelling need for its own greenhouse gas standards. A new federal fuel efficiency law is a better approach, he said, though California officials argue their law is tougher and faster-acting.
The EPA has been sued by California, other states and environmental groups over the decision, and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has introduced legislation to overturn it. Boxer plans to bring her bill to a vote Wednesday in the Environment and Public Works Committee she chairs.