National plan

With the enactment this week of a landmark energy bill raising automobile gas mileage standards to 35 miles per gallon by 2020, Bush said, "We now have a national plan. It's one of the benefits of Congress passing this piece of legislation." (EPA / December 20, 2007)

The head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ignored his staff's written findings in denying California's request for a waiver to implement its landmark law to slash greenhouse gases from vehicles, sources inside and outside the agency told The Times on Thursday.

"California met every criteria . . . on the merits. The same criteria we have used for the last 40 years on all the other waivers," said an EPA staffer. "We told him that. All the briefings we have given him laid out the facts."

EPA administrator Stephen L. Johnson announced Wednesday that because President Bush had signed an energy bill raising average fuel economy that there was no need or justification for separate state regulation. He also said that California's request did not meet the legal standard set out in the Clean Air Act.

But his staff, which had worked for months on the waiver decision, concluded just the opposite, the sources said Thursday. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk with the media or because they feared reprisals.

California Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols said she was also told by EPA staff that they were overruled by Johnson.

She said Johnson's decision showed "that this administration ignores the science and ignores the law to reach the politically convenient conclusion."

Nichols, who served as assistant EPA administrator overseeing air regulations under President Clinton, said she had helped write waiver decisions there, and "I know California met all the criteria on this one."

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has vowed to fight in court to overturn the decision.

Technical and legal staff also concluded that if the waiver were denied, EPA would very likely lose in court to the state, the sources said.

But if Johnson granted California the waiver and the auto industry sued, "EPA is almost certain to win," said two sources quoting the briefing document. They advised him to either grant the waiver outright or give California a temporary one for three years.

Instead, three sources said, Johnson cut off any consultation with his technical staff for the last month and made his decision before having them write the formal, legal justification for it.

"It's very highly unusual," said one source with close ties to the agency.

Normally the technical staff would be part of the final decision-making process, including briefing the administrator and writing the formal legal document before his decision. In this case, the briefings were done, but the formal finding has yet to be drafted.

Johnson could not be reached for comment late Thursday.

In Wednesday's media briefing announcing his decision, he said his staff "presented me with a range of options with a lot of pros and cons" and that he had considered them all.

Press secretary Jennifer Wood said Johnson chose to make his announcement before the decision was written because "he was also doing his best to keep his commitment to [Schwarzenegger]. He made a commitment to the governor to get the decision out by the end of the year, and he was ensuring he would be able to do that."

Some staff members believe Johnson made his decision after auto executives met with Vice President Dick Cheney and after a Chrysler executive delivered a letter to the White House outlining why neither California nor the EPA should be allowed to regulate greenhouse gases, among other reasons. The Detroit News reported Wednesday that chief executives of Ford and Chrysler met with Cheney last month.

"Clearly the White House said, 'We're going to get EPA out of the way and get California out of the way. If you give us this energy bill, then we're done, the deal is done,' " said one staffer.

Chrysler spokesman Colin McBean said that records show that Chrysler submitted position papers on the mileage issue with the Bush administration's Office of Management and Budget about five weeks ago. Neither McBean nor a Ford spokeswoman would comment on whether company executives met with Cheney.