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White House Skirts Regulating Greenhouse Gases

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/traffic.jpgPhoto Credit: stock.xchng

For six years, the Bush administration denied or ignored the impact of climate change. But last May, after the Supreme Court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency could no longer avoid it, President George W. Bush ordered the to regulate greenhouse gases. He promised to release new rules by the end of the year.

Eight months later, the rules to limit tailpipe emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are locked up in a White House vault somewhere, a doleful example of this administration’s unsubtle political maneuvering around inconvenient scientific truths, and a slap in the face to government scientists who try to confront them.

Environment_4769.jpg
Environment_4769.jpg

Illustration by:Matt Mahurin

The administration’s evasions have created an embarrassing spectacle. The ’s administrator, Stephen Johnson, denied California the right to issue its own greenhouse gas regulations, despite warnings from his staff that would be sued over this—and would lose. Then, when Congress demanded to see internal documents where this advice was given, Johnson handed them over—but they were almost entirely whited out with tape. He claimed attorney-client privileges because had been, as his staff warned, sued. Congressional staffers tore the tape off the documents and gave them to reporters anyway.

Dramatic changes are riding on the policy struggle that inspired these shenanigans. Big industry groups have pressed the Bush administration to forbid the to regulate greenhouse gases from cars and trucks. They fear, correctly, that an agency ruling on vehicles will open the way to strict controls on coal plants, factories and other industries. They paint the regulations as a looming threat to the economy as it hovers near recession.

Environmental groups say that industry has been dragged kicking and screaming through Clean Air Act rulings in the past, without bringing the economy to its knees. Cleaner and safer cars, soot-free smokestacks and acid rain-free forests came about through rules, not the beneficence of industry, they point out. If global climate change, they add, is as serious a problem as scientists say, we need to act now.

“Over the last 35 years of the Clean Air Act,” said Vickie Patton, a former official who is now at the Environmental Defense Fund, “we have consistently demonstrated that America can meet big challenges in addressing the impacts of airborne contaminants. But you have to have standards to unleash American innovation and ingenuity on these critical challenges. And there’s no bigger challenge today than the imperative to address global warming. ’’

Industry lobbyists, who view global warming as theoretical or unstoppable, and efforts to slow it as futile and destructive, have worked hard to keep the from fulfilling the high court’s order. Their key target is an “endangerment finding” that scientists have been working on as the first step toward regulating carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Before the regulates a pollutant, it makes a finding to establish the threat to “public health and welfare.” Once the threat is established, regulation becomes mandatory, which explains why the administration has been leery of a finding on carbon dioxide.

Indeed, the White House tactic of centralized control has been at work in other agencies that produced evidence in favor of regulations. In October, the Centers for Disease Control Director Julie L. Gerberding prepared testimony for a Senate committee in which she called climate change a “serious public health concern.” Her remarks were vetted by White House Office of Management and Budget officials, who removed (pdf) “serious public health concern” as well as seven of the text’s 15 pages that described health effects, like the spread of infectious diseases and the impact of storms and drought.

This White House has routinely used review to tinker with science that supports regulations it dislikes. Science editor Donald Kennedy, whose journal is considered the most prestigious in the scientific world, described this action as an egregious example of the Bush administration’s instinct to secrecy and suppression.

Much is at stake. In a Dec. 7 letter to the Senate, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and six major industry groups warned that if the started regulating tailpipe greenhouse gases, it would tie up more than 300,000 businesses in red tape, “causing significant harm to the economy.” Following a Dec. 17 meeting with White House officials, conservative groups warned that regulations would lead to “mind-boggling construction delays, economic uncertainty, paperwork burdens and engineering expenses … for no measurable environmental benefit.”

Industry’s panic led the White House and Congress to work together on an energy bill that the administration clearly hopes will supplant regulations. The bill, which Bush signed into law Dec. 18, for the first time in 33 years increased the fuel economy standards of cars and trucks. It requires automakers to have a fleetwide average of 35 miles per gallon by 2020.

That law did not free the from its obligation to regulate, however. So the administration took other steps. Four years ago, California created its own greenhouse gas regulations, which would take effect with model year 2009 vehicles. California’s proposal, which 19 other states have adopted or shown interest in, requires cars to average 44 mpg by 2020 and would cut greenhouse emissions from vehicles, over the next 13 years, by roughly twice as much as the new energy bill. Such changes seem to be feasible. Indeed, Paul Argyropolous, an official, was quoted in November as saying that the ’s rules would probably follow those of California.

But the day after Bush signed the energy bill, the reversed course, in a move that looked like it came out of the White House playbook. Johnson, the administrator, denied California’s right to implement its own regulations, and signaled that the agency was going to let the energy bill replace its own efforts. “The Bush administration is moving forward with a clear national solution,” Johnson said, “not a confusing patchwork of state rules, to reduce America’s climate footprint from vehicles. When fully implemented, our federal fuel-economy standard will achieve significant benefits by applying to all 50 states.”

In snubbing California, Johnson also stiffed his own staff, who had warned that would be sued (several states sued on Jan. 2) and lose. Jerry Brown, California’s attorney general, said Johnson “must have gotten his advice from a Ouija board.”

has been silent about its own, 250-page set of regulations, that were completed in mid-December and sent to the White House. An spokesman, Jonathan Shradar, said the agency was reviewing the energy bill to “determine how it may affect our regulatory options.” Those options include not regulating at all, he said.

When Johnson was called before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee last Thursday, he was met by bipartisan exasperation at the ’s inaction. James Inhofe, the Republican climate change denier from Oklahoma, was the only sympathetic senator. Barbara Boxer (D-Cal.) called Johnson’s refusal to acknowledge that climate change was damaging to health “at best embarrassing, at worst dangerous.”

California has particularly strong reasons to care about climate change. Erratic precipitation patterns, which match up nicely with climate change models, threaten more floods and fires and could threaten farming in the nation’s breadbasket—as well as critical environmental habitats and city water supplies. A study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters says that carbon dioxide-induced warming disproportionately affects Californians, causing 300 additional deaths a year.

To be sure, climate change is not as easy to get one’s arms around as some of the substances has targeted in the past. Sulfur dioxide, which regulated by forcing coal plants to use scrubbers, clearly caused acid rain that harmed forests. Similarly, plenty of data shows that diesel particulates exacerbate asthma. Climate change is both a far bigger problem and a harder one to tackle. “You don’t inhale climate change,” as the ’s George Sugiyama said at a November advisory meeting.

Then, too, the droughts, floods and epidemics resulting from climate change are most likely to hit the countries that produce the fewest greenhouse gases. This is partly due to the vicissitudes of weather patterns, partly to the shabby infrastructure of the Third World.

Take, for example, dengue fever, a sometimes fatal, mosquito-born illness that has overwhelmed parts of Asia and Latin America in recent decades. The disease has found a home in south Texas over the past 10 years, as two dengue-carrying mosquito species have moved north. Yet the U.S. effects aren’t as severe, at least so far.

A recent survey found that 23 percent of the residents of Laredo, Tex., have antibodies—meaning they’ve been exposed to dengue. Across the Rio Grande, in Nuevo Laredo, 48 percent have antibodies. The more deadly, hemorrhagic form of the disease—which can result from repeated infections—strikes hundreds of people each year in Mexico, but is so far rare in the U.S. This is probably because the Mexicans have fewer air conditioners and more standing water—exposing them to more insect bites—and a less reliable health care system.

Because it’s hard to put numbers on the health effects of climate change, particularly in the U.S., the was leaning in early December toward an endangerment finding that greenhouse gases caused “welfare” effects, without quantifiable “public health” impact. This would have allowed more lenient emission limits. Scientists who track the spread of infectious diseases can’t easily link climate change to specific health effects, but most of them are appalled by the idea of ducking regulation.

But the administration is keeping its head in the sand. It will be interesting to see whether this position will enable it to weather the storm of Congressional outrage.

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