The director of the Environmental Protection Agency is sabotaging both himself and his agency.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is fast losing the few shreds of credibility it has left. The Bush administration has always shown more zeal in protecting business interests than the environment (see Nature 447, 892–893; 2007). But the agency's current administrator, Stephen Johnson, a veteran EPA toxicologist who was promoted to the top slot in 2005, has done so with reckless disregard for law, science or the agency's own rules — or, it seems, the anguished protests of his own subordinates.
On 27 February, to take the first of two examples that surfaced last week, Senator Barbara Boxer (Democrat, California) used a routine budget hearing to give Johnson a grilling. Why hadn't he given her state permission to regulate the carbon dioxide emissions of vehicle exhausts? California needs a waiver from the EPA to regulate in this way, and in the past such waivers have been granted easily. And, Boxer reminded him via a series of leaked memos and PowerPoint presentations, Johnson's own top-level staff begged him to sign the waiver in this case. “This is a choice only you can make,” one colleague wrote to him. “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.”
In December, Johnson announced he would refuse the waiver, an act that would also deny permission to more than a dozen other states seeking to base their exhaust regulations on California's. Johnson argued that climate change is not a local phenomenon, so dealing with it isn't what the authors of the Clean Air Act intended for the waiver system.
Although logical, this argument is similar to that made by Johnson's EPA in an earlier case involving Massachusetts, when the agency fought against CO2 regulation all the way to the Supreme Court — and lost. His insistence on using it again can perhaps best be understood from the fact that Johnson answers to a White House that is hostile to regulation on principle. It is also worth noting that his refusal documentation, made official on 29 February, extensively quotes an industry trade association, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.
The second example came on 29 February, in the form of a joint letter to Johnson from the four labour unions representing most of the EPA's professional staff. Listing examples of alleged bad faith by Johnson, the unions essentially refused to work with him until he cleans up his act. Among the complaints was an assertion that he repeatedly ignored the EPA's official Principles of Scientific Integrity, citing “fluoride drinking water standards, organophosphate pesticide registration, control of mercury emissions from power plants” — and the waiver refusal.
In a rational world, Johnson would resign in favour of someone who could at least feign an interest in the environment. Alas, it seems that he will probably stay on until January 2009, refusing waivers, fighting lawsuits and further depressing employees' morale. In the meantime, we can only offer those employees a fantasy: the White House doesn't want the agency to do anything, so shut it down until next January. Take some fully paid sabbatical time to relax, and prepare for a return to the old-fashioned protecting of the environment that so many of you joined the agency for.
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The EPA's tailspin. Nature 452, 2 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/452002a