Eighteen months ago, I watched the head of the Environmental Protection Administration shake hands with Mickey Mouse after the two had hoisted a compact fluorescent light bulb for a Disneyland photo op. I’d been promised a sit-down interview with Stephen Johnson, the career EPA staffer tapped by George W. Bush in 2005 to run the agency, but his handlers evidently thought better of it, and reneged.
Instead, they gave me a few minutes to sprint alongside Johnson as he headed out of the Magic Kingdom. I asked him when he would respond to an April 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that compelled the EPA to decide whether greenhouse gases were endangering the public, and ordering the agency to act if there was a risk. That could include allowing California and other states to move forward on tough laws requiring recalcitrant automakers to slash greenhouse gas emissions. All that was needed was his signature waiving the states from having to wait for national action. Similar waivers on air pollution regulations have been granted for decades.
Johnson, a genial, unfailingly polite man (whether shaking hands with an oversized mouse or being accosted by a Los Angeles Times reporter), said he had ordered his staff to respond to the Supreme Court with an national emission plan that was even better than the states’ by the end of 2007. He said he was extremely proud of how hard they were working to get it done. Then he was off for the first leg of a Sony-funded, cross-country tour promoting the aforementioned light bulbs as a bright idea for slowing global warming.
Back in D.C., EPA career staffers were indeed pulling long nights and weekends to finish a comprehensive plan. That December they presented it to their boss and the White House. The report concluded that greenhouse gases were in fact a danger, that a national plan was needed, and that California and the other states should be allowed to act.
Johnson’s response? “He froze us out,” said one exhausted, frustrated staffer I tracked down in a late night phone call at the time. In an Orwellian series of phone calls and e-mails, White House staffers also refused to acknowledge to me that they’d received any such document from the EPA. If they had confirmed it publicly, it would have set in motion the process requiring the federal government to act. Weeks later, Johnson denied California’s waiver request.
Last July Johnson went further, saying that despite the high court’s order, the Clean Air Act was “the wrong tool for addressing greenhouse gases” because it would be too costly for the American public, and that Congress should pass legislation to tackle the issue.
By engaging in such Mickey Mouse stunts, Johnson broke his word to his own staff and the American public.
Today, his successor, Lisa Jackson, partly reversed course, announcing that the EPA had in fact concluded that mounting greenhouse gases pose a serious threat. In the accompanying report, agency staff again laid out a frightening litany of possible dangers: increased heat waves that would likely fell the elderly, the very young and the chronically ill, increases in ozone smog that would add to respiratory infection, asthma and premature death, more severe coastal hurricanes, and other devastating impacts.
The report also explicitly tied motor vehicle emissions to climate change. But there was no mention of allowing California or more than a dozen other states to move forward promptly with their long languishing laws. Quite the opposite.
In a briefing with Senate staff Friday before the announcement, Jackson’s new climate change adviser, who led the charge for Massachusetts in the Supreme Court case, said the legal underpinning for granting the states’ waivers had nothing to do with finding a danger from greenhouse gases. Sierra Club attorney David Bookbinder and California Air Resources Board chair Mary Nichols both said the same thing. “We are delighted” by Jackson’s decision, said Nichols. “And it has no bearing on the California waiver decision, there’s no connection.”
That doesn’t quite jibe with what environmental attorneys and California regulators were saying a year ago, and it’s not clear why. Possibly Jackson intends to finally approve California’s waiver and let it and other states proceed with concrete action to tackle greenhouse gases, and she doesn’t want some new legal finding to delay that. In fact Congress slipped a little noticed June 30 deadline for her to either grant or deny California’s waiver request into this year’s omnibus budget act.
But perhaps there’s no public mention of the states’ emissions laws because she and the new president don’t want to face the heat from irate automakers and business interests, preferring to leave it to Congress to do the dirty work on climate change. Indeed, Jackson and Obama are sounding curiously like their predecessors, Bush and Johnson, wanting to punt to Congress to take action.
As today’s EPA press release concluded, in classic government verbosity, “Notwithstanding this required regulatory process, both President Obama and Administrator Jackson have repeatedly indicated their preference for comprehensive legislation to address this issue.”
Furious jockeying will begin in earnest next week over climate change legislation proposed by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.). Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has promised the House will pass a bill by Memorial Day. But even the most optimistic observers say it will be a steep climb to meet that deadline.
This afternoon, there is Beltway chatter about harmonizing states’ climate laws creatively with a national automobile regulation, with both included in the Waxman-Markey bill. There is also brave talk of the regulatory process marching onward no matter what happens in Congress.
There is no talk of promptly granting the states’ waivers.
In the meantime, an estimated 7 billion tons of greenhouse gases continue to pour annually from U.S. automobiles and smokestacks into the atmosphere. Hopefully, Obama and Jackson will move forward quickly to address the looming perils laid out in today’s report. Otherwise, they risk looking like Mickey’s pals, Goofy and Minnie.
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