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THE NATION

EPA staff turned to former chief on warming

The officials sought help, unsuccessfully, in persuading their boss to allow California to set its own climate law.

February 27, 2008|Richard Simon and Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Some officials at the Environmental Protection Agency were so worried their boss would deny California permission to implement its own global-warming law that they worked with a former EPA chief to try to persuade the current administrator to grant the state's request.

That unusual effort was revealed by documents released Tuesday by congressional investigators probing whether EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson was swayed by political pressure when he decided not to allow California to enact vehicle emission standards stricter than the federal government's.

The documents were released as a battle escalated between a key California Democrat, Sen. Barbara Boxer, the chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and the Bush administration over her efforts to get correspondence between the White House and the EPA leading up to Johnson's decision in December.

One of the newly released documents features "talking points" prepared by an agency staff member for former EPA Administrator William K. Reilly to help him build the case for granting California's request. In the October 2007 memo, the staffer said there was "no legal or technical justification" for the EPA to deny the request. If the agency refused California permission to implement its tailpipe law, the document said, "the credibility of the agency . . . will be irreparably damaged."

Reilly, who served in the administration of the first President Bush, said Tuesday that he had asked staff who worked under him and were still at the agency to prepare the memo. "I'm a busybody," he joked. Then, he added, "I really believe in the urgency of addressing climate change. . . . It is the foremost environmental threat to this planet at this time. California was attempting to lead on the premier environmental issue of the day."

In an e-mail also released by Boxer, William L. Wehrum, a former lawyer for the chemical, utility and auto industries who recently left his EPA job after serving as acting assistant administrator for air and radiation, argued against granting the waiver as far back as 2006.

Wehrum said Tuesday that he didn't recall the specific e-mail. But he said he had argued against granting California's request because he did not think the state could show it was suffering uniquely from global warming, a condition required by the federal Clean Air Act.

But in another document released Tuesday, staff of the EPA's climate change division cited conditions that made the state "vulnerable to climate change."

Boxer said the documents were further evidence that Johnson acted against the advice of his legal and scientific advisors in denying California's request. "We see more and more evidence of Administrator Johnson ignoring the science and the facts," she said. She plans to question the EPA chief when he testifies before her committee today on the agency's budget.

EPA spokesman Jonathan Shradar said Johnson received a "wide range" of advice from inside the agency. "At the end of the day, it was his decision to make, based on the law," he said. "He made the decision he felt was right, and he stands by it."

California and more than a dozen other states that want to enact similar laws have sued to overturn Johnson's decision. Legislation to overturn the decision had picked up 23 Senate sponsors as of Tuesday, including Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois.

Johnson has said he reached his decision independently, denying he was influenced by political pressure. He has contended that the tougher vehicle fuel-economy rules required nationwide by the recent energy bill are preferable to a "patchwork of state rules."

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richard.simon@latimes.com

janet.wilson@latimes.com

Simon reported from Washington and Wilson from Los Angeles.

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