Administration tactics in emissions fight criticized

Times Staff Writer

washington -- A key congressional Democrat on Monday accused the White House of working behind the scenes “to stack the deck” against California’s efforts to impose new restrictions on vehicle greenhouse-gas emissions.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s decision whether to permit the state to impose its own standards is “supposed to be made on the merits,” said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles). But, he asserted, administration officials -- led by Secretary of Transportation Mary E. Peters -- have worked to rally members of Congress and governors from vehicle-producing states to oppose California’s efforts.

Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, leveled his accusation of improper lobbying in a letter to James L. Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. The administration’s effort, Waxman wrote, “suggests political considerations -- not the merits of the issue -- will determine how EPA acts.”

The federal Clean Air Act allows California to set antipollution standards stricter than the federal government’s, but only if the EPA waives a provision in the act stating that federal standards supersede state standards. California applied for such a waiver in 2005, but the request remained in legal limbo until the Supreme Court’s ruling in April that the EPA has the authority to regulate greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, that contribute to global warming.

President Bush and his aides had argued that federal officials did not have the power to set mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions.


Waxman on Monday cited e-mail exchanges between administration officials that he said confirmed the lobbying effort.

In a June e-mail, Simon Gros, then the Transportation Department’s deputy chief of staff, advised Peters that his staff called “just about every auto-friendly member” of Congress. Waxman said the calls came days after an auto-industry trade group gave the department a list of vehicle-producing facilities by congressional district. Department officials spoke with or left messages for the staffs of at least three senators, 23 representatives from Ohio and Michigan and seven governors, according to Waxman.

Waxman complained to Connaughton that the Transportation Department activities were apparently conducted with the approval of Connaughton’s office, which coordinates federal environmental efforts.

Some Transportation officials expressed concerns about the lobbying, Waxman asserted. A May e-mail from Assistant Secretary Tyler Duvall to Undersecretary Jeff Shane said: “I think we need to be a bit careful with this.” The next day, Chief of Staff Robert Johnson wrote to Shane: “The last e-mail isn’t a good conversation for e-mail.”

The Department of Transportation said in a statement that its efforts to “inform elected officials about the petition before EPA were legal, appropriate and consistent with our long-held position on this issue. For over 30 years, the department has supported a single, national fuel-economy standard as part of our effort to save fuel, ensure safety, preserve the environment and protect the economy.”

At the Council on Environmental Quality, spokeswoman Kristen Hellmer said EPA officials would make an “independent and objective decision based on the merits of California’s petition and the record of public input before the agency.”

“Outreach by federal officials to state government counterparts and members of Congress on issues of major national policy is an appropriate and routine component of policy development,” she added.

Waxman launched his investigation into whether federal officials were improperly lobbying after obtaining a voice mail this year from a Department of Transportation aide to a congressional staffer warning that if California received the waiver, “it could lead to a patchwork of regulations on vehicle emissions which could have significant impacts on the light truck and car industry.” Department officials denied that their actions violated the anti-lobbying restrictions in federal law, which prohibit agencies from trying to influence how members of Congress vote, saying they were only communicating the potential impacts of granting California permission to implement its emissions standards.

Shortly after the Supreme Court handed down its ruling that greenhouse gases were air pollutants subject to federal regulation, the EPA opened a required public comment period on California’s waiver request. The agency is still reviewing written comments and technical and scientific documentation received during the public comment period, which ended June 15, a spokesman for EPA administrator Stephen Johnson said Monday. A decision on the state’s request is expected by the end of the year.