Global Warming Battle Heats Up

August 13, 2008 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

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Four Democratic senators demanded late last month that the head of the Environmental Protection Agency must go. Their call for EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson’s resignation — after eight months of looking into his actions as agency chief — is largely due to Jason K. Burnett, Johnson’s former deputy in developing global warming policy.

Since resigning in May as the No. 3 official at EPA, Burnett has helped congressional investigators build a compelling case that the White House strong-armed Johnson into denying California a waiver to police greenhouse gas tailpipe emissions and also stopped the EPA from setting a national greenhouse gas standard.

Illustration by:Matt Mahurin Illustration by:Matt Mahurin

In stepping forward — no one has directly challenged his statements — Burnett, 31, has won over Johnson’s many critics in Congress. For example, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee, praised him at a hearing. “We need good, caring people like Jason Burnett,” Boxer said.

But while Boxer and her allies cite Burnett’s sworn statements in their continuing battles with the Bush White House, Burnett says he wants to move on. His high-profile whistleblower role ends seven years of first shaping and then dissenting from some of the administration’s most contentious environmental policies.

Burnett supplied the scientific basis for business-friendly arsenic and mercury policies considered so controversial that they were soon reversed. But he quit EPA over a disagreement with Johnson in 2006, only to return in a more important job, and then resign again because, he says, the administration failed to set a global warming policy.

It is this negligence on global warming, Burnett said in an extended telephone interview, that caused him to decide to become a whistleblower. Burnett resisted detailing the battles he waged with Johnson and the White House. Instead, he expressed optimism that, at the very least, his work on global warming will be of use to the next administration.

“This was a policy disagreement I had with Administrator Johnson, who is in a very difficult situation,” Burnett said. “I respect the administrator though I do disagree with the policies he has pursued.”

“I was invited back [to EPA] to do a job and I did all this administration wanted me to do. This administration has declined to decide what to do about the profound policy challenge of global warming. … This administration has decided to make itself irrelevant.”

Close observers of the EPA are skeptical about Burnett’s recent turn against the Bush White House. “I do not know what motivated him to say that he suddenly realized that this administration wasn’t going to do anything,” said David Bookbinder, chief climate counsel at the Sierra Club. “He’s not dumb.”

“Nobody knows for sure why he went public and started ratting out his colleagues,” said Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch. “He was one of the political insider’s at EPA. People [on staff at EPA] are stunned that he’s trying to rewrite history and say that he was a good guy all along.”

Burnett’s second time with EPA began in May 2007, following the Supreme Court decision, Massachusetts v. EPA. The court ruled that if greenhouse gases do, in fact, cause a dangerous level of climate change, then EPA must, under the Clean Air Act, curb their emissions. The court also ordered the president to publish a scientific finding from EPA on whether greenhouse gas pollutants merit regulation.

After the decision, Johnson hired Burnett as the point person to work on the scientific finding and overall issue of initiating a global warming policy. This came a year after Burnett left EPA, over what he said had been a policy disagreement with Johnson on a standard for soot particles in the air. “While he and I ultimately didn’t agree on the right way to set an air quality standard,” Burnett said, “He liked how I operated. He liked my expertise and experience in applying economic analysis to environmental policy-making.”

But a flurry of activity by Johnson last December prompted Burnett to once again leave EPA.

Burnett told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in May that, throughout 2007, Johnson wanted to give California a partial waiver to regulate tailpipe emissions. Burnett said that Johnson altered his position sometime in December, after communicating with the White House.

Johnson had testified before Congress in January that the White House hadn’t pressured him to deny the waiver.

In July, Burnett told the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming that Johnson, as well as officials from the White House and Office of Management and Budget, had originally supported an EPA staff finding that greenhouse gases pose a public-health danger sufficient to require regulation.

But Burnett said their position abruptly changed in December 2007, when he sent an email to the White House with the scientific finding that greenhouse gases cause global warming and must be regulated. The White House literally didn’t open the email, and instead called Burnett, instructing him to say that he sent the email “accidentally.”

The email still has not been released. Instead, EPA extended the comment period on whether greenhouse gases should be regulated.

The White House did, however, allow Boxer, and three of her colleagues, to briefly look at the email. Burnett declined to relate the email’s content. He said that he cannot release the findings, because this is still EPA property. But he did say that the email will have future relevancy. “It will have legal significance requiring EPA to then issue the first federal greenhouse gas regulations. I believe that much of the work we did will help the next administration.”

Indeed, between his whistleblowing and the potential use of the email, some good has likely come out of Burnett’s second time with EPA. The same probably can’t be said for his previous involvement with environmental policy.

The grandson of the late billionaire David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, Burnett got his start in Washington with the right-leaning think tank, American Enterprise Institute-Brookings Joint Center, now known as the AEI Reg-Markets Center.

There, he wrote a series of papers on cost-benefit analysis — including one arguing that economic costs trumped a Clinton-imposed EPA standard limiting arsenic, a carcinogen, in drinking water. In light of this, the Bush administration briefly did away with the standard in 2001. But sharp public backlash caused a reversal of the decision.

Burnett joined EPA as political appointee in 2004, working with the Office of Air and Radiation on a new standard for the acceptable level of mercury metal, a neurotoxin that comes out of power plant smokestacks.

When EPA established a “cap-and-trade” mercury emission program in 2005, environmentalists immediately called it a gift to industry. “It was environmentally bad and flagrantly illegal on its face,” said Bookbinder of Sierra Club.

A federal appeals court agreed. In February of this year, the D.C. circuit court of appeals ruled that EPA violated its congressional mandate that all plants must reduce mercury emissions. The judge caustically compared EPA to the Queen of Hearts character in “Alice in Wonderland” — who made rules by whim and without justification.

“The mercury rule was typical of the Bush EPA,” said Bookbinder, “which, at the time, Burnett fit right into.”

“He came into a lot of ill repute at the agency during the mercury battles,” said O’Donnell. “He was one of the principle architects for a policy that proved to be a total disaster from an air pollution standpoint.”

Burnett said his opinions on mercury and arsenic regulation are consistent with cost-benefit analysis. “My basic philosophy of the regulation is fairly straight forward,” he said. “Some regulations are quite beneficial to the well-being of our country and some of them aren’t. I’ve tried to apply a consistent set of principles to each inquiry.”

In 2006, Burnett said it was these principles that caused him to leave EPA. Johnson had overruled a staff recommendation on regulating soot, a minute particle that can cause lung cancer. “One of the primary reasons I first left EPA,” Burnett said, “was that Administrator Johnson declined to provide a stronger soot standard.”

How much of a difference Burnett has made by publicly dissenting from Johnson is not clear. Burnett has detailed EPA’s denial of the California waiver. But he’s confident that regardless of his revelations, the courts will reverse the California decision. “California has met the test of the Clean Air Act,” he said.

And Burnett’s talk about the next administration likely means it will be at least two years before a president appropriately addresses Massachusetts v. EPA.

“Sure, he’s giving corroboration that the leader of EPA is a scoundrel,” said O’Donnell, of Clean Air Watch. “But what’s being done about it? The career [EPA staff] people have been keeping their heads down for seven years. They figure they might as well keep them down for another five months.”

Nonetheless, Burnett has been an essential asset to lawmakers whose job is to hold the executive branch accountable. “What Burnett is doing is important,” said Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at a Senate environmental committee hearing. “Because he’s confirming what many of us have known for years — that Bush and Cheney have been especially disastrous on environmental matters.”

Burnett’s revelations about this administration could make him a player in the next one. Along with campaigning for Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.), Burnett’s current political activity includes maxing out donations for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the presumed Democratic nominee.

Burnett said that he doesn’t have “any plans or expectations” of working in an Obama administration, which he seems to feel is likely. But his prospects for being in a future administration are, at the very least, better than Johnson’s.