EPA bides time on emissions order

Times Staff Writer

EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson has shelved his agency’s findings that greenhouse gases are a danger to the public, and on Thursday told Congress that he will initiate a lengthy public comment period about whether such emissions are a risk before responding to a U.S. Supreme Court order.

The move means there is virtually no chance the Bush administration will act to regulate greenhouse gases in response to the high court’s decision in the time left in office.

The decision by the Environmental Protection Agency infuriated Democratic lawmakers, and attorneys who won the landmark case before the high court last spring.

“This is a transparent delaying tactic and a major reversal of EPA’s position,” said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills). “The Bush administration is recklessly abandoning its responsibility to address the global warming crisis.”

“It’s outrageous,” said Sierra Club attorney David Bookbinder, one of the lead attorneys on the case, who said he would ask the Supreme Court next week to order the EPA to act within 60 days.


The EPA administrator’s position of prolonged evaluation mirrors that advocated by a coalition of industry groups and conservative think tanks, including the Heritage Foundation. The groups emphasized to the White House and lawmakers that the Supreme Court had set no deadline by which the EPA needed to act -- and that during an economic downturn, seeking comprehensive public comment and a “go-slow” approach would be far better.

EPA spokesman Jonathan Shradar countered criticism of the decision by saying, “No matter what is shouted or screamed from the rooftops, this is truly a historic moment. No administration has taken this step to evaluate this new pollutant.”

The Supreme Court ruled in April that under the Clean Air Act, the EPA was required to evaluate whether carbon dioxide was a risk to public health and welfare, and if so, to impose regulations on polluters, in particular automobiles.

EPA staffers told The Times they had concluded that such greenhouse gases were a major threat to water supply, crops, wildlife and other aspects of public welfare, and their finding was forwarded to the White House for review in December. In addition, under orders from Johnson, the staff last fall completed a draft regulation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles.

But on Thursday, Johnson wrote to key members of Congress outlining an exhaustive public-comment approach to the Supreme Court decision that he said would better address what harm greenhouse gases may cause, based on thorough study of all industry sectors -- not just vehicles -- that emit such gases.

“This approach gives the appropriate care and attention this complex issue demands,” wrote Johnson. “Rather than rushing to judgment on a single issue, this approach allows us to examine all the potential effects of a decision with the benefit of the public’s insight. In short, this process will best serve the American public.”

Vickie Patton, senior counsel with Environmental Defense, and a former EPA attorney under President Clinton and President George H.W. Bush, harshly criticized Johnson.

“As glaciers disintegrate, EPA’s response is delay, deny and obfuscate,” she said. “EPA career staff has developed policies that are ready to go. They’re awaiting a simple signature [from Johnson], but instead he’s walking away.”

Johnson’s action came after Edwin Meese III and fellow attorneys at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, spent months sending detailed legal analyses and memos to “everyone we could think of” at the White House and in Congress, said Michael Franc, the foundation’s vice president of government relations. Meese was attorney general under President Reagan.

The heart of their objections was that although the Supreme Court ruled on automobile emissions, the decision as worded could apply to every major smokestack industry and small business, including restaurants and apartment buildings.

White House deputy press secretary Scott Stanzel declined to comment on what role White House officials played in the EPA decision, or on the input it received from the Heritage Foundation and others. “We commend Administrator Johnson’s decision,” Stanzel said.

EPA spokesman Shradar said Johnson had acted independently.