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Editing Flap Over EPA's Report on Environment

Whitman cut section on climate because only language White House agreed on was 'pablum.'

June 20, 2003|Elizabeth Shogren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Environmental Protection Agency chief Christie Whitman said Thursday that she decided to omit a section on climate change from a long-awaited status report on the nation's environment because the only language the Bush administration could agree on amounted to "pablum."

The report, expected to be released Monday, will be the first comprehensive look at the quality of the nation's air, water, land and public health to be published in the agency's 30-year history. But the section on climate change will merely refer readers to government Web sites that link to documents on the subject and the administration's policy for dealing with it.

There is virtually unanimous agreement among scientists that the Earth is getting warmer. Most say the recent warming is probably due mostly to human activities, such as the use of fossil fuels -- coal, oil and natural gas -- and deforestation. Burning fossil fuels produces gases, such as carbon dioxide, that can rapidly concentrate in the atmo- sphere, causing a greenhouse effect that results in rising temperatures.

Internal administration documents, first reported Thursday in the New York Times, indicated that White House officials removed language from an early EPA draft that represented the scientific consensus on climate change and inserted language implying more uncertainty than exists among leading scientists.

An internal EPA document, dated April 29, concluded that the White House version "no longer accurately represents scientific consensus on climate change." It suggested that one option for dealing with the problem would be simply to delete the chapter on climate change.

The report is a pet project for Whitman, who plans to leave the agency at the end of this month. She was worried that the whole report would become a victim of the dispute over the climate-change chapter. A few weeks ago, she said Thursday, she decided to remove that chapter, knowing the decision would provoke a "brouhaha."

"It didn't have the depth and the credibility that the rest of the report has," Whitman said. "If all you can get is pablum, it is better not to do anything."

The episode was the latest in a string of internal controversies over climate-change policy that has created political difficulties for the administration. Critics charge that the administration has tried to bend science to fit its policies, while administration officials contend that the controversies reflect honest disagreements about the extent of the risks posed by global warming and society's contributions to it.

"The fact that we couldn't get 30 different departments' and agencies' scientists to agree about what we could say on climate change wasn't unusual," Whitman said.

Several Democratic senators wrote to President Bush on Thursday, demanding an explanation about the role of the White House in watering down the climate-change chapter.

In their letter, Sens. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.) -- all members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee -- said news that the White House had deleted portions of the EPA report "brings into question the ability and authority of the EPA or any agency within this administration to publish unbiased scientific reports."

James L. Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, coordinated comments from various agencies and White House offices to produce the draft rejected by Whitman.

"I don't think there was anything different about the editing in the climate-change section than in other sections," Connaughton said.

He stressed that the Bush administration already had produced two lengthy reports on the science of climate change. In addition, he said, at the administration's request, the National Academy of Sciences published a report on the issue in 2001.

"We have provided an abundance of information," Connaughton said.

Environmentalists applauded Whitman for deleting the chapter rather than accepting the language approved by the White House. However, they said the episode should send a warning signal about how the White House deals with science that does not back its policies.

"The White House is putting pressure on the EPA in a number of areas to change or withhold information," said Jeremy Symons, manager of the National Wildlife Federation's climate change and wildlife program. "If every time the White House seeks changes the agency then chooses to sit on the information, then that's a real problem, because Congress and the public rely on the EPA to provide good environmental information."

Symons wondered whether Whitman's replacement will be able to "stand up to the White House and say, 'We're going to stand up for sound science or say nothing at all.' "

Democrats used the incident as a chance to draw attention to an issue in which they believe they can clearly differentiate their policies from those of the president.

"Rather than allow the truth to come out about global warming, the White House has edited out a long section that, among other things, cites well-established scientific conclusions that climate change is happening, that it is caused in part by tailpipe and smokestack emissions, and that these changes could threaten public health," Lieberman said in a statement.

Early in his presidency, Bush reversed a campaign pledge to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. He also removed the U.S. from the Kyoto Protocol, a 1997 international agreement that calls on industrialized countries to reduce their greenhouse emissions.

The president has called for voluntary commitments from industries to control the growth of emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. But he has rejected calls from environmentalists and members of Congress from both parties for mandatory measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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