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White House puts warming threats on back burner

It rejects the EPA staff's findings on greenhouse gases and passes the issue on to the next president.

July 12, 2008|James Gerstenzang and Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration Friday rejected its own experts' conclusion that global warming poses a threat to the public welfare, launching a comment period that will delay action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at least until the next president takes office.

The Environmental Protection Agency published a 588-page examination of the issues surrounding greenhouse gases but refused to adopt its staff's finding that such gases could cause disastrous flooding and drought and affect food and water supplies.

The White House portrayed the EPA's original proposal to limit emissions as an "onerous command-and-control regulation" that "would impose crippling costs on the economy" without reducing the gases widely held responsible for the warming climate.

Environmentalists angrily denounced the White House for what they said was political interference with government experts' proposed rules.

The political reaction also was sharp, though some industry and business spokesmen agreed that economic burdens need to be considered.

California's Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said the administration has never believed in global warming nor in doing anything about it. He asserted that the U.S. did not want to act because China and India have not done so. In an interview scheduled to be broadcast Sunday on ABC News' "This Week," the governor added: "We don't wait for other countries to do the same thing. That's what makes America No. 1."

An EPA official who worked on the rejected reports said Friday's announcement was unprecedented because agency staffers did not have a chance to respond to other agencies' criticism. "How do you respond to comments you've never even seen?" said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of fear of retribution.

The impetus for federal action came from a Supreme Court decision in April 2007 that rebuked the administration and ruled that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases were air pollutants subject to federal regulation under the Clean Air Act. If the EPA found they were a threat to the public, the court said, the agency was required to produce regulations to reduce the risk.

By not taking a stand on the health impact of the pollutants and seeking new public comment instead, the administration extended the period before the government can act beyond Jan. 20, 2009 -- when the next president will be inaugurated.

At the same time, it added fuel to criticism that President Bush has dragged his feet on the issue throughout his 7 1/2 years in office, avoiding a concerted government attack on global warming.

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence, said: "The White House has taken an earnest attempt by their own climate experts to respond to the Supreme Court's mandate to address global warming pollution and turned it into a Frankenstein's monster."

Bill Kovacs, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce vice president, said the EPA staff's proposals were "an unprecedented power grab by unelected officials who want to stretch the application of the Clean Air Act into regulation of the entire economy."

Unwilling to commit

Bush returned Wednesday from Japan, where the Group of 8 summit of leading industrialized nations set a goal -- but not a binding commitment -- to cut emissions in half by 2050.

One day earlier, a former EPA official, Jason K. Burnett, said that Vice President Dick Cheney's office had worked to alter sworn congressional testimony provided by a federal official in January to play down global warming and head off regulation of greenhouse gases.

White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said in a written statement that the EPA staff proposal would have given the agency "unprecedented power affecting anyone who uses or produces energy -- from stores and manufacturing facilities to power plants, farmers, even schools, hospitals and apartment buildings." She said the EPA would have functioned "like a local planning and zoning board, with potentially devastating effects on our economy."

In a conference call with reporters, EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson said he would receive comments for 120 days on how the government should regulate greenhouse gases, a step that Joan Claybrook, president of the public-interest lobbying group Public Citizen, said would guarantee that "the issue will not be dealt with until a new administration comes to town."

"The interference of the White House in this process is unconscionable, and its decision to run out the clock rather than take action during its tenure in office is a disgrace," she said.

Interference denied

Despite the Supreme Court ruling, Johnson said the Clean Air Act was "the wrong tool for addressing greenhouse gases" because it would require the agency to set separate standards for a large number of industries, a process he said could take years to complete and lead to multiple court cases. Rather, he said, Congress should produce a legislative answer.

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