Muckraker: Grist on Politics

As we’ve reported here over the past week, the White House is trying to block the Environmental Protection Agency from releasing a document that shows how the Clean Air Act could be used to regulate greenhouse gases. Over the weekend, Grist talked to former associate deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency Jason Burnett about the agency’s findings and the White House’s interference.

Burnett, an economist by training, and the EPA’s environmental experts concluded in their draft response to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA that greenhouse gases pose a threat to human welfare and should be regulated. The White House, however, has to sign-off on this “Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” before EPA can release it, and as agency officials have told the press, the Bush administration is pressuring EPA officials to eliminate large sections of their analysis that support stronger regulation.

Burnett describes himself as a “longtime Democrat,” but he was appointed to the EPA by President George W. Bush, where he worked specifically on the agency’s response to the Supreme Court case. He left the agency on June 9, 2008 over the White House’s interference in this case. Burnett says he’d “done as much constructive work as would be possible under this administration,” and decided it was time to move on. But this wasn’t the first time Burnett left the EPA after disagreements with the administration; in October 2006, he says he resigned his position after a difference on how to regulate soot. He came back to agency in the beginning of June 2007. Over his tenure there, he was involved in authoring the controversial decisions on both soot and mercury. Before joining the EPA he co-authored a paper arguing that the agency should prioritize economic concerns in regulating arsenic.

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Since leaving the EPA a second time he’s thrown his support (both verbal and financial) behind Barack Obama’s presidential bid and talked to the press more openly about his experience at the agency. Despite his differences with the administration, Burnett maintains it was an “honor to serve the country” and that EPA administrator Stephen Johnson is “an honorable man in a difficult position.”

Grist: Obviously we’ve been following the story about the email that the White House won’t open. Could you describe, from your point of view, what happened?

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Burnett: Let me start by describing the challenge created by the Supreme Court case, Massachusetts v. EPA. The Supreme Court found that greenhouse gases are air pollutants and therefore the EPA has to determine whether they endanger the public. It’s quite clear that greenhouse gases and climate change do endanger the public, and that is the conclusion that was formally sent to the White House. That is the conclusion: that the public is endangered by greenhouse gases and they must be controlled under the current law.

Grist: This is what you sent in December, in the email that they said they weren’t going to open?

Burnett: I’m not going to talk about the back-and-forth. I know that others have. I’m simply going to talk about what is required under the law and what actions I took. I worked toward responding to the Supreme Court decision. The first step is the formal finding that the public is endangered by greenhouse gases. And that was the conclusion of the work of the Environmental Protection Agency. The next steps are to address the ramifications of that finding; namely how best to move forward with regulations under the Clean Air Act — a law that was clearly not designed to address greenhouse gases. But [it] must be used unless Congress passes a new, better law.

Grist: What was your reaction when the White House said they simply weren’t going to look at the email?

Burnett: I haven’t been willing to talk to people about that sort of internal communication. I think that the Post quoted some source, and I don’t know who that is, it was not me, as characterizing my reaction. I will say that I think the nation is best-served by confronting this challenge of climate change. Those who have looked carefully at how climate change affects human health and welfare recognize that it endangers the public, and I’m not willing to walk away from that challenge.

Grist: Is it normal to send this kind of thing by email?

Burnett: It doesn’t really matter. The point is that we found there was endangerment to the public, and transmitted a formal finding to the White House.

Grist: From what we’ve heard so far, the document that you sent said that EPA’s experts have found, conclusively, that greenhouse gas emissions and climate change are a threat to public welfare. But, the draft that the White House is expected to put out this week will merely raise the question that [those issues] may be a threat. Is that an accurate assessment of the situation?

Burnett: I’m not going to comment on what they’re doing now. I’ve left the agency. I made the decision that we’d done as much constructive work as would be possible under this administration, and the opportunity for continuing to find a solution to the challenge posed by the Supreme Court is best now done outside the administration.

Grist: When you say you concluded that climate change is a threat to public welfare, did you find that it’s already having an effect, or were these more predictions that in the future it will be a threat if left unmitigated?

Burnett: The impacts of climate change are projected to grow over time as greenhouse gas concentrations increase. We are seeing effects now. It’s hard to ascribe any particular weather event to climate change, but we certainly expect that with climate change there will be more fires in the west, more flooding, more droughts. Can I tell you that the fires right now in California are because of climate change? No, but it is certainly consistent with the models that predict more hotter, drier seasons that will be conducive for forest fires in the West.

Grist: What, from your experience, was the role of the White House in guiding what the EPA could do about this?

Burnett: I’m not going to talk about the internal back-and-forth. I’m simply going to say that the decision was made to leave these important policy questions to the next administration. And I have confidence that EPA will be able to present the next administration with a range of options for how best to move forward with the obligation to regulate greenhouse gases.

Grist: What about the California waiver? What was your role in that, and can you talk about that experience?

Burnett: I supported granting the waiver. I thought it was the best policy and the best read of the law. And frankly I have confidence that the California waiver will be granted either by court action or the next administration. Both Sen. McCain and Sen. Obama have said they support California’s ability to do what California thinks is best for its citizens.

Grist: You resigned recently. What was it that made you decide at this point that you couldn’t work within this administration any longer?

Burnett: I want to work towards finding construction solutions for the challenge presented by climate change, and found that I had exhausted my ability to make progress within this administration. I decided it was therefore time for me to move on.

Grist: What made you decide in the past few weeks that you wanted to speak publicly about your experience with this particular case?

Burnett: I think it’s important that the next administration confront the challenge posed by regulation of greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. It’s not too soon to start planning a careful response to the Supreme Court case and to the inevitability of regulations under the Clean Air Act.

Grist: Can we expect any action on the Supreme Court ruling in the months left in this administration?

Burnett: A couple days ago the D.C. circuit court ruled to not put the EPA on a time-line for responding, but there’s no question that the EPA must respond to the Supreme Court. And that response has only one answer — climate change endangers the public and regulation must be put in place. That is the law, and I have confidence that the next administration will move forward with implementing the law.

Grist: But what about this administration? Will they move forward on the law, or are they just going to run-out the clock?

Burnett: The administration has decided to leave these important policy questions to the next.

Grist: You were also involved with authoring regulations on arsenic, mercury, and soot, and there were significant feelings from a lot of people that those measures were a lot less stringent than science would merit. Now that you’ve left the administration, what do you think about those rulings? Aren’t there public endangerment issues there as well?

Burnett: I am in a unique position to have left the agency twice in a little over two years. The first time I left was because I didn’t think that the agency was protecting the public from fine particles, or soot. I felt like the right thing to do was to move on after that decision. I was invited back and had an opportunity to work on one of the most profound challenges that our country faces in the environmental arena, and it was an honor to serve the country.

Grist: What made you decide to go back, after you decided that you were frustrated because you couldn’t get anything done on soot? What convinced you to go back?

Burnett: I thought that I could help move forward with a practical response to the Supreme Court case, and to help put in place a sensible regulatory structure for addressing greenhouse gases. It was a tremendous opportunity, and I am honored to have been able to serve in that capacity. When I reached the conclusion that there wasn’t more constructive work to be done on this issue in this administration, I decided to leave my position and continue working on the issue, but from the outside.

Grist: You were a pretty high-level resignation there. Do you think that’s going to have any effect on how things are running there?

Burnett: My desire is to ensure that the next administration has a full range of options before it so it can move forward with sensible regulations under the Clean Air Act, while working with Congress to pass a new, better law.

Grist: I know there were a number of meetings with industry lobbyists, specifically one in July 2006 [PDF]. Can you speak to what happened at those meetings?

Burnett: I can tell you that I do my best to listen to all parts of the public, and have tried to do that in my time. I certainly listen to and respect that there are different positions on these complicated questions, but ultimately my job was to provide the best advice I could to the administrator and I hope that I did that.

Grist: Could you describe for me your relationship with Stephen Johnson?

Burnett: As I’ve said, it was an honor to serve the EPA and the country, and I appreciate that he is also serving. [Burnett followed up with an additional statement on Johnson via email: “Steve Johnson is an honorable man in a difficult position.”]

Grist: As a Democrat, was it odd or tough to be an appointee within the Bush administration?

Burnett: We all serve the same country.