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Memo: EPA chief pressed on Calif. waiver

/ Source: The Associated Press

Some high-ranking career staffers concerned about the reputation of the Environmental Protection Agency believed that Administrator Stephen Johnson would have to consider resigning if he turned down California's request to reduce vehicle greenhouse gas emissions, newly released documents show.

Johnson denied the waiver request in December, blocking California and at least 16 other states from implementing the reductions.

The internal discussions were a part of transcripts released Tuesday by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who is investigating that decision.

Among them is a staff memo prepared for the head of the EPA's Office of Transportation and Air Quality, Margo Oge, to present to Johnson. It urged Johnson to grant the waiver or find a compromise.

"You have to find a way to get this done. If you cannot, you will face a pretty big personal decision about whether you are able to stay in the job under those circumstances," said the memo, written by a deputy to Oge, who is a career agency employee.

"This is a choice only you can make, but I ask you to think about the history and the future of the agency in making it. If you are asked to deny this waiver, I fear the credibility of the agency that we both love will be irreparably damaged," said the October memo.

"The eyes of the world are on you," it said.

"It is obvious to me that there is no legal or technical justification for denying this," the memo added.

EPA spokesman Jonathan Shradar couldn't say Tuesday whether Oge had actually made those exact points to Johnson, although "it clearly represents where Margo was at."

"All these documents, all that we've produced in accordance with the committee's oversight responsibilities, all they show is a continuance of what we've talked about — the administrator was fully informed, he had great career and political staff giving him options, and he followed what he saw was the law," Shradar said.

It's not clear from the document who would have asked Johnson to deny the waiver, which was also opposed by the auto industry, which favored a national approach. Johnson has said repeatedly that he alone made the decision. Boxer, who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, questioned that.

She released a memo with a portion of Johnson's schedule showing a meeting at the White House apparently to discuss the California waiver. An attached briefing memo seems to support California's position.

"You know, a funny thing happened on the way to the White House," Boxer said. "Mr. Johnson goes into the White House with a briefing that tells him to fight for the waiver, and then the waiver's not granted."

Boxer's aides have been allowed to transcribe unredacted versions of the EPA documents only under the supervision of EPA staff. Boxer has ignored EPA requests to keep the contents confidential.

California sues agency
The EPA, which has been sued by California and other states over the waiver decision, has yet to release communications between EPA and the White House, saying they are under legal review, Boxer said.

In a letter to Boxer, EPA Associate Administrator Christopher P. Bliley said the EPA is consulting with other executive branch agencies on the document requests.

In denying the waiver, Johnson said that a national approach would be better and that California had not demonstrated a compelling need for the law, which would have forced automakers to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent in new cars and light trucks by 2016.

Johnson made his decision on the same day President Bush signed a new law raising fuel economy standards, which Johnson said would provide the needed nationwide approach. California officials argue that California's law would be stronger and act faster.

The Clean Air Act gives California special authority to regulate vehicle pollution because the state began such regulations before the federal government. But a federal waiver is required, and if California gets one, then other states can adopt California's standards, too.

Twelve other states — Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington — had adopted California's tailpipe standards and the governors of Arizona, Colorado, Florida and Utah had said they also plan to adopt them. The rules were under consideration elsewhere, too.