WASHINGTON — The head of the Environmental Protection Agency was preparing to join his staff in supporting California's bid to regulate greenhouse gas emissions in vehicles -- until he consulted with the White House, a congressman leading an investigation into the decision said Monday.
"It appears that the White House played a significant role in the reversal of the EPA decision," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Waxman's comments drew a sharp rebuke from the panel's top Republican, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, who called the chairman's allegation "a knee-jerk conclusion of nefarious intent by the White House derived from a manifestly incomplete investigation."
Waxman is investigating whether EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson's refusal to let California implement a tailpipe law was based on politics rather than science and law.
Johnson repeatedly has denied that he was swayed by pressure from the White House or the auto industry, which has fought the state's efforts to enact tougher emission standards. He has declined to discuss his conversations with President Bush about the issue.
Waxman said a review of more than 27,000 pages of records and interviews with eight EPA officials found that the agency's staff members supported California's effort, which would require a waiver from the EPA.
In one meeting attended by more than 20 staff members, no one thought California's request should be denied, five of the participants told congressional investigators.
In one deposition, EPA Associate Deputy Administrator Jason Burnett told congressional investigators that Johnson in August and September was "very interested in a full grant of the waiver," then said he thought a partial grant of the waiver "was the best course of action."
California has the right to enact tougher air pollution laws under the Clean Air Act but must secure a waiver from the EPA.
Johnson denied California's request in December. When asked whether the administrator communicated with the White House in between his preference to do a partial grant and the ultimate decision, Burnett said, "I believe the answer is yes."
The report was the latest tiff in a months-long battle between congressional Democrats and the administration over documents relating to the EPA's decision. The findings come as Johnson prepares to testify today before Waxman's committee about new ozone standards, which also have generated controversy.
Waxman has subpoenaed the EPA for documents on communications between the agency and the White House, but the agency has declined to turn them over.
Waxman's allegation comes as the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, led by another California Democrat, Sen. Barbara Boxer, is expected to act this week on legislation to overturn the decision.
California and more than a dozen other states that want to enact similar laws have gone to court to overturn the decision.
EPA spokesman Jonathan Shradar dismissed Waxman's findings as "nothing new."
Johnson "made his decision based on the facts and the law," he said. "At the end of the day, it was the administrator's decision alone, and he stands by the decision."