Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Democrats warn of denial by EPA of Clean Air Act waiver

By David Whitney -

Last Updated 5:34 am PST Wednesday, December 19, 2007
Story appeared in MAIN NEWS section, Page A4

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WASHINGTON – Key Democrats on Capitol Hill are preparing for the Environmental Protection Agency to rule against California's application for a Clean Air Act waiver permitting it to proceed with tough reductions in car and truck emissions.

The decision could come any time. Despite congressional pressure and a California lawsuit filed in October seeking a quicker decision on the state's 2-year-old application, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson has said only that the waiver decision will be made by the end of the year.

In a gathering with reporters Tuesday, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said she has "very little hope" that the EPA will grant the waiver, which would open the door to California and more than a dozen other states imposing emission standards more stringent than federal requirements.

The California standard calls for a 30 percent cut in tailpipe emissions by 2016. It is a key part of the state's aggressive effort to reduce global warming.

Asked whether she thought the decision would be made by the EPA or at the White House, Boxer said: "If you look at everything done on the environment, a lot of this leads back to the vice president's office."

"Politics is alive and well in relation to this waiver," said Boxer, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Under the Clean Air Act, California is entitled to impose stricter air pollution standards than the federal government as long as it first obtains a waiver. Over the last three decades, 40 such waivers have been issued. None has been denied.

Once a waiver is granted, federal law permits other states to follow California's lead. Sixteen states have now adopted or soon will adopt emissions laws similar to California's, and they would be entitled to move ahead with them if the California waiver is adopted. Among the states are Florida, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington. Together they represent 70 percent of the new cars and trucks sold in the United States, according to the automobile industry.

Boxer cited "rumors" from inside the EPA of deep divisions over whether to grant the waiver. Bettina Poirier, chief of staff to Boxer's committee, said she had heard reports of "resistance" among EPA staffers to completing the necessary legal and technical analyses.

Those reports parallel concerns raised by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, in a letter to Johnson last week. Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, asked Johnson to report back on whether the administrator had assigned the agency's technical and legal staff "with preparing the appropriate decision documents."

The last-minute hand-wringing comes as Congress completed work this week on an energy bill raising vehicle gasoline mileage standards to an average of 35 miles per gallon by 2020 – the first time in two decades the standard had been increased.

Charges of political interference have been raised before in the waiver battle.

In September, after his panel looked into reports that an agency staff member called congressional offices urging them to oppose the waiver, Waxman issued a report blasting the White House for backing a lobbying campaign by the U.S. Department of Transportation against the state's application. The calls were placed just as the public comment period on the California application was coming to an end in June.

Boxer said Tuesday she had been seeking a meeting this week with Johnson, but that the administrator was "ducking" her.

"Administrator Johnson will absolutely meet with the senator after he makes his decision," EPA spokeswoman Jennifer Wood said. "The administrator remains committed to maintaining the integrity of the process, and the senator has already made her position clear in her statements to the media and to the agency."

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