CLIMATE:

EPA releases Bush-era endangerment document

U.S. EPA released a long-sequestered document on global warming today showing the George W. Bush administration had concluded in December 2007 that greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles were endangering public welfare and needed to be regulated under the Clean Air Act.

The 29-page EPA analysis -- labeled "Deliberative, Do Not Distribute" -- ticked through the climate-changing effects that heat-trapping gases have on air pollution, precipitation patterns, sea-level rise, glacial melting and wildlife patterns. The 2007 EPA document was prepared as part of the Bush administration's response to the Supreme Court's April 2007 decision in Massachusetts v. EPA.

Until now, only House and Senate investigators had seen the Bush-era EPA's "endangerment finding" on climate change -- though under strict rules that would not allow them to make complete copies of the document. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) last summer released excerpts and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) produced a detailed report on the issue based on interviews with agency staff.

Bush's White House Office of Management and Budget denied E&E's request to publicly unseal the climate change materials through the Freedom of Information Act. E&E later resubmitted its request to the Obama administration, and EPA officials said today they agreed to release the document because the agency earlier this spring issued its own proposal that said automobile emissions are a threat to both public health and welfare.

"This draft finding demonstrates that in 2007 the science was as clear as it is today," EPA spokeswoman Adora Andy said. "The conclusions reached then by EPA scientists should have been made public and should have been considered."

The Obama administration EPA's proposed endangerment finding differs in two significant ways from the Bush-era effort. First, Obama linked greenhouse gas emission threats to both public health and welfare, a broader link that allows for a more sweeping set of regulations. The Obama EPA also proposed lumping the six primary greenhouse gases together for possible regulation, while the Bush approach suggested taking comment on regulating either all six gases or each individual gas.

Jason Burnett, at the time a top adviser to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson, was lead reviewer and manager of the original endangerment finding document and sent it to the White House for a final review. But congressional investigators last year determined that Bush ultimately backed down after hearing counterarguments from the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, the Office of Management and Budget, the Transportation Department, Exxon Mobil Corp. and others in the oil industry (E&E Daily, July 18, 2008).

"There was a lot of political pressure during the Bush administration to suppress it after they decided to change course," Burnett said today. "It didn't support their new position."

Burnett welcomed the release of the original materials, saying they demonstrate that both a Republican and a Democratic administration agreed on the science linking emissions to climate change.

"Generally, it's useful to show," Burnett said. "This is not a partisan matter. It's not that the science of climate change depends on the administration in power. Under the Bush administration, it was clearly the case that greenhouse gases endanger the public, and during this administration, it's also clearly the case. And it's also clearly the case going forward."

Bush's top environmental adviser, Jim Connaughton, said he, too, thinks the 2007 EPA document belongs in the public domain, though he questioned the timing of its release before the Obama administration has gone final on its own endangerment finding.

"It's pretty useful information," Connaughton said today.

Connaughton, now a senior vice president for Baltimore-based Constellation Energy Inc., explained that the Bush administration had planned to use EPA regulations to regulate climate change, but changed course and instead opted to work on legislation with Congress.

"We were headed toward regulation, hoping to apply a market-based approach, but quickly came to the conclusion that using the current Clean Air Act was not likely to work well in regulating greenhouse gases," he said. Connaughton cited Bush's April 2008 speech at the White House spelling out principles on a climate bill, a widely criticized move among Democrats, given the previous administration's long-standing opposition to the issue.

Reactions

Several others welcomed the EPA document's release.

"Apparently, even the Bush administration's EPA could find their way off the island of climate denial," Markey, the chairman of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, said through a spokesman. "Hopefully, this revelation will help the last remaining Republican climate castaways to accept the same alarming conclusions reached by the Obama administration's EPA, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and by the billions of people who are already being impacted by global warming."

Joe Mendelson, global warming policy director at the National Wildlife Federation, said the Bush-era document offers further justification for the Obama administration's endangerment finding.

"There's no question that even under an administration that was hostile to doing anything about regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act ... the science and the law are so compelling that even the Bush administration couldn't ignore a conclusion of endangerment," he said. Mendelson was the lead author on the original 1999 petition to EPA seeking regulations for greenhouse gases.

"They tried to wiggle out as much as they could, but they still couldn't wiggle out of a finding of endangerment," Mendelson added.

David Bookbinder, the Sierra Club's chief climate counsel, said that the Bush-era document would have little significance as the climate debate proceeds.

"It's of historical interest but will have no impact on the current debate," Bookbinder said.

"It's like saying the sky is blue," Bookbinder added. "It says more about the Bush administration than it does about global warming at this point. The scientific debate is over, and that's so yesterday's news."

Jeff Holmstead, an attorney at Bracewell & Giuliani who served as EPA air chief during the George W. Bush administration, said he was surprised at how aggressive the Obama administration was with its proposed endangerment finding.

By finding that greenhouse gases endanger public health in addition to public welfare, Holmstead said, "I just think they've gone out on a limb here, even though the science is far from settled on these things."

He added, "If you want to regulate CO2, you don't have to say that it endangers public health and the environment; all you have to do is say it endangers one or the other."

Holmstead said that the Bush administration skirted the public health issue because there were too many scientific questions surrounding a public health endangerment finding. The Obama administration likely decided to make the finding in order to show that it was really concerned about climate change, as opposed to sticking to the science that was much more widely accepted, he said.

"The environmental community is an important constituency for the Obama administration," he said, "and their constituents would have been disappointed had they stopped at the environmental concerns."

Click here for the Bush-era EPA endangerment finding.