First step for Obama in building integrity at EPA on climate change: Out with Administrator Johnson

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Rebuilding integrity in Environmental Protection Agency decisionmaking calls for new leadership that doesn’t abandon scientifically based regulatory decisionmaking under political pressure.  EPA administrator Stephen Johnson’s record under the Bush administration provides some lessons on how not to do it.

Post by Rick Piltz

The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a good and lengthy (5,400 words) article on December 7 focused on the tenure since 2005 of the current EPA administrator, Stephen Johnson (“An Eroding Mission at EPA: The Bush administration has weakened the agency charged with safeguarding health and the environment”)—highly recommended as a recap of some key developments and profile of Johnson.  The article begins and ends with the pivotal EPA action—or inaction—on climate change during the past 8 years:  Johnson’s failure to stand up to White House suppression of the agency’s proposed finding that emissions of greenhouse gases endanger public welfare—a finding that would trigger regulation under the Clean Air Act.  Senior personnel at EPA had put together an analysis laying out how scientific understanding of climate change and its likely consequences justifed such an “endangerment” finding, and proposing a draft rulemaking.  Johnson had signed off on moving forward with it, in accord with his authority under the law.  But, just as he did when the White House ensured that EPA would rule against California’s right to regulate greenhouse gas emissions in that state under the Clean Air Act, Johnson, while posturing as a man of principle, instead sold out.  Given the choice between principled resignation and collaboration, he chose to collaborate. 

Two excerpts:

Philadelphia Inquirer
December 7, 2008

An Eroding Mission at EPA
The Bush administration has weakened the agency charged with safeguarding health and the environment.

By John Shiffman and John Sullivan
Inquirer Staff Writers

WASHINGTON – On Dec. 5, 2007, EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson prepared to send the White House an extraordinary document. It declared that climate change imperiled the public welfare – a decision that would trigger the nation’s first mandatory global-warming regulations.

Johnson, a career scientist, knew that his draft would meet with resistance from antiregulatory ideologues at the White House, but he believed the science was solid.

According to confidential records reviewed by The Inquirer, Johnson cited strong evidence: rises in sea level, extreme hot and cold days, ecosystem changes, melting glaciers, and more. Minor doubts about long-term effects, he wrote, were not enough to alter his conclusion.

Two sentences in Johnson’s draft stood out. In sum: The U.S. emits more greenhouse gases from cars than most countries do from all pollution sources. This fact is so compelling that it alone supports The Administrator’s finding.

At 2:10 p.m., Associate Deputy Administrator Jason Burnett e-mailed the climate-change draft to the White House as an attachment.

What happened next became Johnson’s defining moment and cemented President Bush’s environmental legacy, serving as the low-water mark of a tumultuous era that has left the EPA badly wounded, largely demoralized and, in many ways, emasculated.

White House aides – who had long resisted mandatory regulations as a way to address climate change – knew the gist of what Johnson’s finding would be, Burnett said. They also knew that once they opened the attachment, it would become a public record, making it too controversial to rescind. So they didn’t open it.

They called Johnson and asked him to take it back.

The law clearly stated that the final decision was the EPA administrator’s, not Bush’s. Johnson initially resisted – something Burnett admired – but ultimately did as he was told.

Outraged, Burnett resigned.

In July, Johnson issued a new, censored version, a pale imitation of the original climate-change document.

The article concludes:

[I]n July, to great fanfare, Johnson posted his new global-warming document on EPA’s Web site and published it in the Federal Register.

It ran roughly 1,000 pages long, but it was far weaker than the one he had originally e-mailed to the White House in December 2007.

The original document remains confidential – the EPA has allowed four U.S. senators to read it under closely guarded conditions. Records reviewed by The Inquirer show that the weakened public version Johnson released in July no longer contained his critical personal backing on several scientific findings, which would have made them official policy of the EPA.

Most of all, the revised document did not include Johnson’s original declaration that greenhouse gases endanger public welfare.

Johnson instead echoed the White House’s wishes and called for more study on global warming, delaying any dramatic government action until the next administration took office.

Johnson is known for his even temper and his ability to keep cool under pressure, to stick to carefully rehearsed talking points. But in a second interview, when pressed about his about-face on climate change, he grew exasperated.

“Look, I know there is a pent-up desire in the environmental community, whether it’s former administrators or environmental advocates, to begin regulating greenhouse gases now,” he said. “What I’m trying to do is provide some rationality to the debate based on the best available science . . . that keeps in mind the economic consequences as well as energy security.”

But almost every person who has held Johnson’s job says that the science makes the next step clear, and that the revised climate-change document represented an embarrassing whitewash.

“The difference between my time and now is that we had computer models,” said Reilly, administrator from 1989 to 1993. “Now they have observations in Greenland and the Arctic and Alaska. We know this is upon us. It becomes increasingly indefensible not to act.”

Lee Thomas, EPA chief during Reagan’s second term, said the United States has a responsibility to lead the world on climate change.

“If we don’t do it, then who will?”

Some of our earlier posts on Johnson and EPA:

August 6, 2008:  EPA union officials: Stephen Johnson subverted staff on global warming sound science and policy

July 28, 2008:  Speaking Truth to Power:  Why on earth is EPA whistleblower Jason Burnett standing alone?

July 24, 2008:  Climate change science and government action: Interview on KPFK-FM Los Angeles

July 17, 2008:  EPA releases report identifying harmful effects of climate change on human health

July 17, 2008:  Media coverage of EPA release of climate change health effects assessment

April 28, 2008:  Union of Concerned Scientists study: Hundreds of EPA scientists report political interference

March 12, 2008:  Waxman to EPA: Why is work on required greenhouse gas regulation being blocked?

March 12, 208:  Nature editorial on EPA administrator’s “reckless disregard” for law and science on climate change

March 12, 2008:  EPA unions charge Administrator Johnson violates agency’s Principles of Scientific Integrity

December 20, 2007:  EPA decision controlled by White House CEQ in denial of California CO2 rules?

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