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EPA staff finds emissions threat

Contradicting its chief, it also has concluded a California tailpipe law was justified.

January 24, 2008|Janet Wilson and Richard Simon | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency's staff concluded last month that greenhouse gases pose a threat to the nation's welfare, which would require federal regulations to rein in emissions from vehicles, factories, power plants and other industrial polluters under the Clean Air Act, sources in the agency told The Times.

The conclusion, known as an "endangerment" finding, has been sent to the White House for review, and comes as the agency is under a Supreme Court order to examine risks from greenhouse gases. The agency also faces a lawsuit from at least 16 state governments over their attempts to regulate vehicle gas emissions.

EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson, who had promised to propose regulations of vehicle emissions by the end of last year, has been summoned to testify before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee today to answer questions about why he refused to allow California to enact its own law, despite clear signals from his staff that the state's request was justified.

California had "compelling and extraordinary conditions" to justify its own tailpipe law, according to excerpts of EPA staff documents released Wednesday. That statement contradicts what Johnson said in December, when he concluded that California's request did not meet the "compelling and extraordinary" criteria laid out in the Clean Air Act. California is allowed to implement its own air regulations under the act so long as the EPA grants a waiver, as it has in more than 40 previous cases. Other states then can follow the California standards.

Senate committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) released excerpts from documents she said her staffers were allowed to see but not copy. Boxer said Wednesday that Johnson had done a "terrible job," and accused him of stonewalling the committee's investigation.

An EPA spokesman said the agency did not dispute Boxer's version of the documents. "What it shows is quality staff work," Jonathan Shradar, acting EPA press secretary, said of the excerpts. He said the administrator also considered many other documents, but added that they would not be made public because of litigation over the issue.

Boxer on Wednesday posted in the committee room enlargements of heavily redacted documents, essentially blank placards, that the agency provided to the committee in response to its demand for copies of records.

Among the questions Boxer is expected to ask Johnson is what discussions he had with the White House before reaching his waiver decision. Records show that auto executives met with Vice President Dick Cheney and dropped off documents at the White House arguing against the waiver request.

"We need to know why a majority of our population, over 150 million people, have been denied an opportunity to clean up greenhouse gas pollution," Boxer said.

"Who is Mr. Johnson listening to?" said Boxer. "Who is giving him other advice than the advice he got from his well-qualified staff? . . . He needs to be held accountable."

Johnson could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Prepared remarks that he is to deliver to Boxer's committee indicate that he will repeat his assertion that global warming is just that: global, and not unique to California.

But the documents show his staff concluded that "California continues to have compelling and extraordinary conditions" including its geography, climate and large car-driving population.

Staff concluded that the effects of climate change could hit California particularly hard, including by harming coastal communities and wildlife, increasing ozone levels, contributing to more wildfires and reducing water supplies.

Also on Wednesday, a coalition of environmental groups and attorneys general from several states warned Johnson that it would sue if he did not issue an endangerment finding and a proposed vehicle regulation by Feb. 27.

The Supreme Court and President Bush separately ordered the EPA to determine whether greenhouse gases posed a risk, and if so, to issue regulations. EPA officials said both decisions were on hold pending a judgment by Johnson on whether his agency still had authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions after Congress passed new fuel economy standards.

"What the Supreme Court said is very clear: Either greenhouse gases do endanger public heath and welfare, or they don't. . . . It's very simple," said David Bookbinder, lead attorney for the Sierra Club.

EPA spokesman Shradar confirmed that the endangerment finding had been forwarded to the White House Office of Management and Budget in December, but said he did not know what it contained. He said it was preliminary and would need to be finalized by Johnson. A spokesman for the budget office said he was not familiar with the document.

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janet.wilson@latimes.com

richard.simon@latimes.com

Staff writer Richard Simon reported from Washington, and Janet Wilson reported from Los Angeles.

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