02.27.08

Whitehouse Slams Bush Official’s Stonewalling on Pollution Controls

EPA Head Refused to Respond to Questions or Turn Over Documents About Possible Political Influence in Key Decision on Rhode Island Request to Limit Auto Emissions

Washington, D.C. - U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) sharply questioned the Bush administration's top environment official at a Senate committee hearing today on his refusal to answer questions about his denial of a request by California, Rhode Island and other states to set tough restrictions on pollution.

Documents released yesterday by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, appear to show that EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson met with White House officials to discuss the states' request. Johnson has rebuffed frequent calls by the EPW Committee to provide documents related to the process by which he came to a decision on the request. At the hearing today, Johnson said he could not recall the other participants in the meeting, and would not respond to repeated questions by Whitehouse asking whether politics played a role in his decision.

"In my short time in Washington, I didn't think I would again encounter a witness as evasive and unresponsive as Alberto Gonzales was during our investigation of the U.S. Attorney scandal. Unfortunately, today EPA Administrator Johnson stooped to that low standard," said Whitehouse, a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee and former prosecutor who has been among the leading critics of EPA's refusal to grant the states' request.

"Confronted with important questions regarding his contacts with White House officials and other aspects of EPA's denial of California's request to limit automobile emissions, Administrator Johnson simply retreated behind mindless repetitions of canned phrases. I applaud Chairman Boxer's vigilance and leadership as we probe the EPA's denial, a decision which is also of the utmost importance to my state of Rhode Island. I look forward to working with her and the other members of the EPW Committee to hold the Bush Administration accountable for its misguided and harmful environmental policies," Whitehouse said.

In 2005, California adopted standards for passenger cars, pick-up trucks, minivans and SUVs that require a gradual reduction in greenhouse gas emissions beginning in model year 2009. Since 2005, 14 other states have adopted the California standard, including Rhode Island, and four others are moving towards adoption. Taken together, these 19 states represent over half the population of the U.S. and over 30 percent of the national vehicle fleet.

According to an analysis by Environment Rhode Island, if every state that has adopted the California standard is allowed to implement the stronger vehicle emissions regulations, cumulative global warming emission reductions could reach as high as 392 million metric tons by 2020 - the equivalent to taking 74 million of today's cars off the road for an entire year. In 2020, the tougher standards would cut gasoline consumption by as much as 8.3 billion gallons per year and save up to $25.8 billion annually at the pump.

Under the Clean Air Act, EPA is required to waive federal preemption for emissions standards adopted by California, and any other state that adopts those standards, if California determines that its standards "will be, in the aggregate, at least as protective of public health and welfare as applicable Federal standards," subject to certain conditions.

On December 19, 2007, Administrator Johnson denied California's request, the first time in over 50 instances that EPA has ever denied a California waiver request in full. On January 2, 2008, California, Rhode Island, and several other states and environmental organizations sued EPA to overturn Johnson's decision.

To date, Johnson has failed to turn over documents related to the decision to the EPW Committee or several environmental organizations who have requested the documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Staff members of the EPW Committee were able to review and transcribe several documents showing that EPA's professional staff pushed Johnson to approve the waiver. These documents also indicate that agency scientists and others cited conditions in California that made the state more vulnerable to climate change, and demonstrate concerns among EPA staff that a denial of the waiver request would not survive a challenge in court. Finally, the documents show that Johnson met with White House officials on the waiver issue.

At the hearing today, Whitehouse criticized Johnson's refusal to say that the White House had input on the decision on the waiver. "The immediate question I'm trying to get at, as you know, has been the integrity of the decision-making process that you went through," Whitehouse said. "There are formal means for input for that decision making process. And it concerns me that you can't tell me that there were not improper, informal means of communication from the White House into that process."

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