WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency told the Bush administration that by law California should be able to set air-quality standards that were tougher than federal law, but President Bush rejected the advice and made clear that he wanted a single national standard, a former EPA official said Tuesday.
The testimony from whistleblower Jason Burnett came as the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee's chairwoman, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., is investigating what she charges is an effort by the White House and Vice President Dick Cheney's office to cover up the threat from global warming.
Burnett told the committee that EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson went to the White House last year with a plan to grant California a waiver that would allow it to set tougher standards, at least for several years. Bush made it clear that he preferred a single national standard, Burnett said, and in the end Johnson denied California's request.
Johnson has said in the past that there was nothing unique in California's situation that supported granting the waiver and that he made the decision independently.
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The administration has denied Boxer's requests for e-mails and other documents. She plans to hold a vote Thursday in her committee to subpoena the documents, but she needs at least two Republican members to attend for a quorum.
A key e-mail that Boxer wants disclosed is an EPA document that describes how global warming endangers public health and welfare. Burnett sent the e-mail to the White House in December. He said Tuesday that he sent it only after making last-minute checks that the agency was ready to release it and the White House Office of Management and Budget was ready to receive it.
The White House asked Burnett to withdraw the e-mail, but he refused. The OMB then declined to open it. By not officially receiving the e-mail, the OMB ensured that it couldn't be made public.
In an April 2007 ruling, the Supreme Court required the EPA administrator to determine whether greenhouse-gas emissions from vehicles endanger the public, and if so, to regulate them. The finding that Burnett helped draft and sent to the OMB was the agency's response to that ruling.
"This president, I believe, made a decision that flies in the face of a Supreme Court case, and so I believe it is clearly unlawful," Boxer said.
Burnett described for the committee how the EPA produced a report based on the findings of thousands of scientists whose peer-reviewed work on how emissions of heat-trapping gases were causing the Earth to warm was produced or endorsed by the U.S. government.
Burnett said that officials from the White House, the vice president's office, the Department of Energy and other agencies agreed at a Cabinet-level meeting last November that greenhouse gases endangered the public and regulation was needed.
Soon afterward, however, the administration decided to get public comment instead of proceeding with EPA regulation of vehicles under the Clean Air Act.
On Dec. 19, the White House announced that it was denying the California waiver request.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto said Tuesday that Johnson had taken the views of other administration officials into account and made his own decision. And he said that the administration was responding to the Supreme Court ruling by ordering the comment period as part of the rule-making process.
Asking Burnett to "correct me if I'm wrong," Boxer said that the EPA had a plan for a partial, or short-term, waiver for California and that Johnson took that plan to the White House and returned with a decision to deny the waiver instead because the president wanted a single standard for automobiles.
The EPA determined that California's request met all criteria in the Clean Air Act and made that view clear to administration officials, Burnett told the committee.