EPA chief defends denying Calif. rules

Senators grill Johnson on blocking emissions standards

January 25, 2008|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- Facing heat from Congress yesterday, the head of the EPA stood by his decision to block California from limiting greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks.

Maryland was one of 15 states that had been awaiting Environmental Protection Agency approval to begin enforcing the new standards developed by the California Air Resources Board. But Stephen L. Johnson became the first EPA administrator to deny a so-called California waiver last month when he rejected the request.

Appearing before lawmakers for the first time since the ruling, Johnson said he believed that greenhouse gases contribute to global warming. But because climate change poses a global, not local, threat, he said, California did not face the "compelling and extraordinary conditions" that would have allowed him to sign off on the rules.

"While many urged me to approve or deny the California waiver request, I am bound by the criteria in the Clean Air Act, not people's opinions," Johnson told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer countered with excerpted comments from EPA staff, who advised Johnson last year that California's long coastline, scarce water, varied climate and biodiversity constituted "compelling and extraordinary conditions."

"Your staff was very clear," said Boxer, a California Democrat. "You're walking the American taxpayer into a lawsuit that you're going to lose."

Maryland and other states have joined California in a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn Johnson's decision. On a separate track, Boxer introduced legislation this week that would allow the states to begin enforcing the new standards without EPA approval.

"This strictly allows those states that want to be able to move forward to be able to do it," said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Maryland Democrat who is co-sponsoring the bill. "If the administrator is sincere in his objections that he doesn't have the authority to approve it, then maybe he'll join us in supporting this legislation."

Alone among the states, California may develop its own air-quality rules, subject to federal approval. Once the EPA approves a California waiver, other states may enforce the same rules - and often do.

The proposed limits on tailpipe emissions of carbon dioxide were the first attempt in the United States to reduce greenhouse gases from automobiles. Maryland has joined New York, Florida, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts and other states in adopting the regulations.

Gov. Martin O'Malley told the Senate panel yesterday that climate change threatens the Chesapeake Bay.

"The bay is so much a part of the fabric of my state that many say it is its very heart and soul," he said. "Unfortunately, it is a soul that is burdened, even tortured, by a series of poor policy choices."

But Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox said the proposed regulations would impose a disproportionate burden on automakers.

"Global climate change is a national and international issue which cannot be solved by individual states, nor can it be addressed by focusing on only a single sector - automobiles - that by conservative estimates produces less than a third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions," Cox said.

Republican Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, a climate change skeptic, dismissed the hearing as "theater."

"The fact is that California politicians are trying to achieve through this waiver provision something they cannot achieve through federal legislation: even tighter fuel economy standards than what Congress passed in the energy bill just last month," said Inhofe, the only Republican to attend the hearing. His aides handed out charts indicating that temperatures in California had fallen, not climbed, over the past 20 years.

But Boxer told Johnson the waiver denial was "unconscionable."

"You're going against your own agency's mission, and you're fulfilling the mission of some special interests," she said.

Johnson said repeatedly that he had made "the right decision."

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

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