JUICE: Where’s the Gipper Now?

By Published On: January 25, 2008

It was classic showdown. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) threw down the gauntlet after a long-awaited smoking document appeared. She and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen Johnson, who was a no show at an earlier hearing in Los Angeles, stood on their respective sides, with hands next to their holsters. During a January 24 U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee investigation, Boxer held up a newly leaked EPA staff document that advised Johnson not to deny California’s waiver request to implement its vehicle carbon emissions reduction law because of the state’s “compelling and extraordinary interest” to protect itself against global warming impacts. Enforcement of the state emissions law for autos, AB 1493, is contingent on federal agency approval. So too are the success of the Golden State’s greenhouse gas emission curbs under AB 32, which seeks carbon cuts from far more than cars. Targeted by the law are also power plants, oil refineries, and other large stationary polluting sources. Vehicles are the largest source of carbon dioxide gases in California, followed by power plants. The less cars are regulated the more fossil projects feeding the state may be. “You are going against your own agency’s mission, and fulfilling the mission of special interests,” Boxer told a stone-faced Johnson, who rejected California’s “waiver” request last month. She added his decision impacts more than half the people in the U.S. That is because 15 other states have backed standards the same as the Golden State’s to reduce carbon vehicle emissions. The state laws can only be implemented if EPA approves California’s waiver. “You’re walking the American taxpayers into a lawsuit that you are going to lose, spending money we don’t have,” Boxer fumed. “My job is to make the right decision, not the easy decision,” replied Johnson, who was put under oath. He claimed again that he rejected California’s waiver request because it lacked an “exclusive or unique interest” in reducing greenhouse gases. It was a gun slinging contest reminiscent of the multi-billion dollar shoot out between the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and California after the 2000-01 energy crisis. Last month, Boxer demanded that Johnson turn over the material used to justify his unprecedented denial of California’s request for a Clean Air Act waiver. She pointed to findings showing specific climate change impacts to California, including to its ecosystems, water supply, and other resources, as well as wildfire impacts. EPA officials initially promised to deliver the documents, insisting, however, that committee chair Boxer’s January 7 deadline was too stringent. Then, the cowboys in the black hats did a classic bait and switch. They turned over only a fraction of the documents. To add insult to injury, the information delivered contained large swaths of whited-out text. Holding a large tangle of used tape, Boxer complained during this week’s hearing that her staff had to pull white tape off the EPA documents to reveal the underlying text. “What a waste of our time. This isn’t national security, this isn’t confidential,” she exclaimed. Her theatrics would have made former Hollywood star, state governor and President Ronald Reagan proud. Surprising as it may seem, the Gipper helped California win the right to set its own auto emissions standards under the Clean Air Act back when Lyndon Johnson occupied the White House. While the “Great Communicator” is far better known for blaming trees for smog, Reagan knew he had to take steps to reduce noxious smog in Tinsel Town and the surrounding region and that cleaning up the auto was crucial. Now the issue is about more than cars and smog in California. It is also about the power market and the carbon footprint of oil refineries, cement factories and other major global warming polluters. Boxer and many of her colleagues complained that Johnson’s unprecedented denial infringed on state rights to protect their citizens from havoc wreaked by carbon driven climate change. Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT), paraphrasing Bob Dylan’s lyrics from “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” told Johnson and the Bush Administration, “Get out of the road if you can’t lend a hand.” The EPA chief provided no new information to the committee this week, which came as no surprise. For the last two years, the Bush Administration’s has stonewalled California politicians and lawmakers. It made repeated excuses for not making a decision, and few expected EPA to approve the request although a denial stood on shaky legal ground. Revealing the documents supporting the denial would inhibit agency staff’s “honest and open opinions and analysis” and violate the agency’s attorney-client privilege, claimed Christopher Biley, EPA associate administrator, in a letter to Boxer at the end of last week. “Further disclosure of this type of confidential information could jeopardize the Agency’s ability to effectively litigate claims related to California’s waiver request,” Bliley added. The waiver denial was the first one since Reagan helped the state win its first vehicle emissions regulations, which were set before any federal standards. It is also noteworthy that his action while governor helped cement California’s leadership in the environmental arena. Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) told Johnson his denial was “an affront to federalism and an affront to our states’ ability to protect their citizens and develop national policy.” You could almost feel the Gipper rolling over in his grave. After all, he was a state’s right man when he moved into the Oval Office. Under Reagan, many state environmental programs flourished. Boxer’s January 24 investigation came three weeks after California joined with 15 other states that adopted the standard to ask a federal court to overturn Johnson’s December 19 denial of the Golden State’s Clean Air Act waiver request. The EPA administrator asserted last month that a boost in the corporate average fuel economy standard for cars to 35 miles a gallon by 2020 did away with the need for California’s rules and prevents a patchwork of state standards. The increase in the mileage rules was included in federal energy legislation, known as H.R. 6, enacted at the end of last year. Johnson, however, denied during the January 24 hearing that the President’s signing of H.R. 6 the day he issued his denial via an evening press release was unrelated. Johnson claimed that that additional supporting EPA documentation would be released February 15. Outside the hearing, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger blasted the EPA’s purported rationale for denying the state a waiver as “unsound,” in a January 23 letter. It highlights the vastly differing world views of his Republican administration and that of Johnson’s boss, President George W. Bush. In a repeat of history, the state has passed bold measures to cut emissions, this time greenhouse gases. But today, the feds and California stand at opposite sides of the saloon. So much so that it makes you want to see the Gipper ride again.

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