Today’s Must Read

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March 14, 2008 9:46 a.m.

If there’s one thing EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson doesn’t like to talk about, it’s his conversations with the White House. When questioned about some decision that just happened to delight the White House, Johnson, the most disciplined adherent to talking points in recent memory, responds with a version of “the final decision was mine and mine alone” or “I have routine contacts with various officials on a wide range of issues. . . . I value the ability to have candid discussions that are part of good government.”

But unfortunately, sometimes you just can’t keep a lid on things. Earlier this week, the EPA issued a new rule on the allowable amount of smog-forming ozone in the air. It was a decision taken against the unanimous advice of EPA scientists, who advised a much lower standard than the one ultimately decided upon. That has come to be a sadly regular occurrence. But this time, the role of the White House — and President Bush himself — is clear. From The Washington Post:

EPA officials initially tried to set a lower seasonal limit on ozone to protect wildlife, parks and farmland, as required under the law. While their proposal was less restrictive than what the EPA’s scientific advisers had proposed, Bush overruled EPA officials and on Tuesday ordered the agency to increase the limit, according to the documents.

“It is unprecedented and an unlawful act of political interference for the president personally to override a decision that the Clean Air Act leaves exclusively to EPA’s expert scientific judgment,” said John Walke, clean-air director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The White House’s intervention was so last minute and arbitrary that the Justice Department was evidently set to scrambling in an effort to find the legal support for it. As the Post reports, the effect of the decision will likely be long term: “Under the Clean Air Act, the federal government must reexamine every five years whether its ozone standards are adequate, and the rules that the EPA issued Wednesday will help determine the nation’s air quality for at least a decade.”

The White House’s influence (first reported by The Los Angeles Times earlier this week) was made evident by documents that the EPA was forced to produce in support of the decision. And in those documents, you can see the different ways EPA scientists and White House officials approached the problem. One the one side, you have concern for the environment. On the other, concern for “personal comfort and well-being”:

The EPA’s documents suggest that senior officials and scientific advisers resisted the White House’s position. Last year, the agency’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee wrote — using italics for emphasis — that it unanimously supported the EPA staff’s conclusion that “protection of managed agricultural crops and natural terrestrial ecosystems requires a secondary [ozone standard] that is substantially different from the primary ozone standard. . . .”

When the OMB’s Susan E. Dudley urged the EPA to consider the effects of cutting ozone further on “economic values and on personal comfort and well-being,” the EPA’s Marcus Peacock responded in a March 7 memo: “EPA is not aware of any information that ozone has beneficial effects on economic values or on personal comfort and well being.”

You can be sure that Johnson’s next trip to Capitol Hill will put his talking points to the test.

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