Some of us had high hopes for Stephen Johnson when President Bush appointed him in March 2005 as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Johnson was not a former oil-industry lobbyist or Halliburton executive. He was a career civil servant who had been with the federal government for 24 years. He was a scientist, not a political hack, and he had served under both Democrat and Republican presidents.
I could relate, although my federal career was the reverse of Johnson’s.
I started as a political appointee under President George H.W. Bush, then served the next 15 years as a careerist at the Department of Energy. During that time, I learned that there are a lot of good feds out there — people who work hard and take risks for what they believe is in the public’s best interest. It requires backbone at times to resist improper political pressures and to carry out the oath of office that federal employees take, promising to “well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”
It now appears that Johnson is not fulfilling that oath. There’s new evidence that he has allowed the White House to usurp his duty to enforce one of the nation’s most important environmental laws, the Clean Air Act. Under the Act, it is the Administrator of EPA, not the president, who is the decider on enforcement issues. The president does not have the legal authority to dictate what those decisions will be.
But that’s not the way the game is played in this Administration. From time to time, we get a glimpse back stage to see that President Bush, Vice President Cheney and their deputies are pulling the strings in a show of raw petro-politics, the law and the contrary advice of experts notwithstanding.
One such glimpse came this week from former EPA official Jason Burnett — an admitted and unrepentant Democrat. Burnett told Congress that Johnson allowed the White House to overrule him on California’s request for a waiver under the Clean Air Act. The waiver would have allowed the state to implement its own standards for greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, in excess of those set by the federal government.
The Clean Air Act specifically allows California to be more aggressive than the federal government on matters like this, so long as the Administrator grants a waiver. Once California is given the go-ahead, other states are allowed to adopt its standards. Seventeen states indicated they would adopt the California standard for vehicle emissions once Johnson signed the waiver.
Instead, Johnson denied the request in February 2008 after sitting on it for nearly three years, an unusual outcome given that EPA had approved all 50 of California’s previous waiver applications over the last 40 years.
The denial was Johnson’s right under the law, assuming it was his decision and was based soundly on the criteria established by the Act. But Burnett says that Johnson originally intended to grant the waiver, believing it was justified until he was overruled by the White House.
As Robert Sussman of the Center for American Progress has pointed out, this is not the first time that Johnson has pushed key environmental decisions into EPA’s black hole or has overruled the recommendations of his former colleagues among the agency’s scientists and professional staff. Sussman documents other decisions by Johnson that raise “disturbing questions about his ability to carry out the spirit and letter of the nation’s environmental laws and his acquiescence in a White House political agenda seemingly bent on blocking the agency from taking action compelled by court decisions and long-standing Clean Air Act precedents.”
The most significant of these has been EPA and White House stalling tactics on climate action since the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last year that the agency has the authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. To trigger the regulatory process, all Johnson has to do is to declare that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare — an obvious conclusion based both on the Court’s decision and on an overwhelming body of scientific evidence.
Nevertheless, 16 months after the Supreme Court ruling, EPA announced earlier this month that it would not proceed with regulation while Bush is still in office.
But back to the California waiver: Last January, Johnson told a congressional committee under oath that “I made the decision” to deny California’s request. Burnett’s latest testimony indicates otherwise. When a House subcommittee asked Johnson for the real story last May, he refused to talk about his conversations with the White House, claiming executive privilege.
In case there has been any doubt, Burnett’s testimony supports the case that public officials such as Johnson (along with the parade of other Administration officials who have recently declared executive privilege or acute amnesia) are merely puppets of the West Wing, even when Congress has delegated them direct responsibility to administer the law.
And in case there has been any doubt, the plot of the puppet-show was made transparent by other Administration decisions in recent days. One lifted the ban imposed by Bush’s father on offshore oil production. In another, just announced, the Department of Interior released draft rules to pave the way for oil shale production on public lands in the West. Congress has placed a moratorium on final oil-shale rules, but the moratorium is scheduled to expire on Oct. 1. Interior Secretary Dick Kempthorne is quoted as saying he’ll move swiftly to make the rules final when the moratorium expires.
Oil shale production would be a disaster of several dimensions. It is extremely energy and water intensive, and its use would be another major setback to the goal of reducing the nation’s carbon emissions. Oil shale production would divert precious water from Western cities and farms, creating another fuel-or-food problem, and sink more money and time into another questionable carbon-intensive resource that will make meaningful climate action more difficult and expensive, if not impossible.
There’s no mystery here. The White House is blocking action on climate change while setting the stage for the oil industry to feed America’s addiction to that carbon-intensive fuel for many years to come.
With only six months left on stage, the puppet masters are hard at work. It’s a disappointment that someone like Johnson, who has made public service his career, is allowing his integrity to be destroyed by a president who shows little regard for him, the nation’s long-term welfare, or the law.
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