White House Climate Change Policy -- Delay, Delete, and Deny

by Sean Moulton, 7/22/2008

The Bush administration continues its strong efforts to censor climate change information that reaches the public and Congress. Recent reports indicate that the White House pressured the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to make changes to its regulatory process regarding climate change and that Vice President Dick Cheney's office was responsible for suppressing key sections of the congressional testimony of a high-level official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Full Stall Ahead

In April 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that greenhouse gas emissions are eligible for regulation under the Clean Air Act — a position previously rejected by the administration. Subsequently, EPA would have to either regulate greenhouse gases under the Act or prove emissions are not a risk to public health and welfare and therefore not in need of regulation.

In May 2007, the White House ordered the EPA, along with other agencies, to prepare regulatory responses by the end of the year. According to EPA officials, the agency's draft finding and recommendations on the dangers of CO2 emissions, entitled, "Control of Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Motor Vehicles," were sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in a December 2007 e-mail. Since the Clean Air Act requires EPA to regulate emissions that endanger the public, the so-called endangerment finding carries a legal obligation that the agency take action. Officials at OMB refused to open the e-mail or the draft document, knowing that it may trigger regulatory action on climate change. Climate change is being caused by high concentrations of greenhouse gases in the earth's atmosphere.

Investigations conducted by two committees in the House found that the administration delayed acting on the EPA findings. In fact, despite repeated requests for the EPA information, the White House refused to share any related documents until the records were subpoenaed in April by the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.

After reviewing the subpoenaed records, Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA), Chair of the House Select Committee, charged the administration with discarding EPA's science and legally based recommendations to address climate change. Markey reported that the EPA documents supported scientific conclusions that greenhouse gas emissions may "endanger public welfare" and that motor vehicle emissions do contribute to global warming.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), Chair of the House Oversight Committee, declared the administration's lack of action to be "in violation of the Supreme Court's directive." According to his committee, the draft was the product of about 500 comments from internal EPA review, external federal expert review, and other interagency comments.

Changing Facts

The Wall Street Journal, which claimed to have obtained a copy of the original EPA documents, reported that the White House had done more than delay the information — it appeared the administration had attempted to remove entire findings. According to anonymous officials quoted by the paper, the White House pressured EPA to remove conclusions that greenhouse gases endanger public welfare, information on how to regulate the gases, and an analysis of the cost of regulating greenhouse gases. The draft of EPA's findings affirmed "the agency's authority to tackle climate change, and suggest[ed] a variety of regulatory avenues" and concluded that the "net benefit to society" of regulating automobile emissions "could be in excess of $2 trillion." However, the cuts the White House pushed were reportedly intended to rework EPA's findings to indicate that the Clean Air Act is a flawed vehicle for regulating greenhouse gas emissions and that separate legislation is needed.

On July 11, EPA released an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) on climate change that appears to confirm that the White House changes had been made. The ANPR included conclusions that differed starkly from those listed by the Journal and congressional committees. For instance, the ANPR states that the "net present value to society could be on the order of $340 to $830 billion."

Despite the Supreme Court ruling that the administration has the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, the administration continues to deny the Clean Air Act should be used. Unlike the original draft, the ANPR was accompanied by 85 pages from other department secretaries aimed at attacking the act and included no finding of endangerment or regulatory recommendations. The Department of Energy called the act a flawed vehicle for regulating greenhouse gas emissions, stating that it was "unilateral and extraordinarily burdensome."

The ANPR marked the opening of a 120-day public comment period. EPA is soliciting views on the current state of climate science, regulatory options for curbing greenhouse gas emissions, and the appropriateness of developing greenhouse gas regulations under the authority of the Clean Air Act. Markey called the ANPR "a plan for no-action." Markey's committee asserts that the White House is handing off the responsibility of addressing urgent emissions regulations tasks to the next administration due to special interest influence.

The release is highly indicative of a larger struggle between appointed officials and agency career staff. In his comments on the ANPR, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson, who had initially supported the original draft findings, referred to the Court decision, stating, "At this point, it is impossible to simultaneously address all of the agencies' issues and continue to respond to our legal obligations in a timely manner."

Although EPA is accepting comment on the ANPR, the content of the notice was immediately condemned by senior White House officials. Susan Dudley, head of the White House's regulatory clearinghouse, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, said the policy "cannot be considered Administration policy or representative of the views of the Administration." Other letters of disapproval came from the White House Council of Economic Advisors and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy, and the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

The Vice President's Black Marker

A July 18 report released by the Select Committee indicated that departmental criticism was at the behest of Vice President Dick Cheney's office. According to the committee, documents obtained by subpoena and further testimony revealed that pressure from the oil industry, most notably ExxonMobil, drove the administration's decision to reject the EPA's pre-ANPR recommendations and findings, ultimately explaining Johnson's reversal.

Evidence of alterations by the vice president's office is indicative of a larger pattern of high-level administration officials exercising influence over expert recommendations by withholding information. The Washington Post recently revealed that the vice president's office was responsible for cutting statements regarding the health risks of climate change from the October 2007 congressional testimony of Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the CDC. While it had been known that the testimony was altered, the public was not aware that the interference had come from so high in the administration. The vice president's office removed sections of the original testimony that declared climate change a serious public health concern due to its influence on the spread of disease. The final testimony lacked any such statement.

Implications of Denial and Delay

These incidents indicate a behavior of censorship targeting the scientific community and the government's career staff. One would think that with such cross-agency expert opinions behind the endangerment findings and climate change science, the administration would act quickly to seek out and implement policy changes rather than hide science behind a cloak of secrecy. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) said of the administration's actions, "This means that the Clean Air Act, signed by Richard Nixon and carried out by every President since, has been shredded by President Bush, who will go down in history as the first president to so gravely endanger the health and safety of the American people."