01/02/2008 11:13 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Dr. Jekyll, Meet Mr. Johnson

Washington, DC -- I have argued before that one of George Bush's worst environmental appointees may not be the obviously inflammatory Mark Rey, nor the ethically challenged Steven Griles, but the quiet career civil servant who heads the EPA, Steve Johnson. Johnson proved me right again over the holidays by rejecting the advice of his lawyers, his scientists, and his entire staff to reject California's request for the right to set its own air pollution standards for CO2 emissions from cars.

Johnson acted in the face of three unanimous federal court decisions, including one from the Supreme Court, that carbon dioxide is an air pollutant under the Clean Air Act, and that both the EPA and the states have the authority to regulate it. Johnson insists that he acted on his own, not in the face of White House pressure. We'll find out, because the EPA has agreed to provide Congress with documentation of the agency's deliberations and of its communications with the White House.

I won't be surprised if the documents show that Johnson did, indeed, make up his own mind. Johnson, unlike Bush's first EPA chief, Christy Todd Whitman, has repeatedly demonstrated that he views the President's policy preferences as trumping the clear language of Congressional legislative mandates, and that he sees himself as faithfully executing not the laws, but the policy preferences of the unitary executive. And the Administration had clearly signaled to Johnson the answer that it wanted him to come up with -- doing so, evidently, without any written record of support. Johnson has done the best he can to insulate his decision from the inevitable legal challenge, making it very much a matter of reading the Administrator's state of mind. He simply said it was his opinion that, as a matter of policy effectiveness, having one federal standard was better than having both federal and state standards.

In doing this, the White House and Johnson are acting as if, somehow, we had to choose. If the California standard were somehow in conflict with the fuel-efficiency standard that Congress just set in the Energy Bill and that the President signed only days before Johnson acted, they might have a case. But no one disputes that a fleet of vehicles that meet California's clean-air emission standards can also meet the federal fuel-economy rules. In fact, a fleet that met California rules would likely exceed the federal standard.

What is particularly galling about Johnson's decision is that, only a few weeks earlier, in a public presentation in Bali, the head of Bush's Council on Environmental Quality, James Connaughton, told the U.N. delegates that the California clean-car standard was an integral part of the U.S. response to climate change, and used it to assert that the U.S. was, indeed, leading. And in meetings with environmentalists, Connaughton argued that the new Congressional compromise standard was not good enough, and that the Administration wanted to go further. If so, it could have done so very easily -- just by letting California set the pace.

Hypocrisy, to be effective, should be better disguised. This isn't even a fig leaf.