Clean Air Villain of the Month

June 2001


EPA is becoming the "Environmental Propaganda Agency"

(Washington, D.C. June 18, 2001) - We take this step with great sadness.

When Christine Todd Whitman was named administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, we praised the choice -- in fact, defended her from criticism by New Jersey environmentalists. We hoped her political stature as governor of New Jersey would enable her to stand up to those in the White House who seek to weaken clean air protections.

We also publicly praised Whitman when she announced that EPA would proceed with the diesel clean-up standards issued by the Clinton Administration.

But recent decisions and misleading rhetoric threaten to undermine EPA's credibility, which was enhanced by former EPA Administrator Carol Browner.

Under Whitman, EPA is turning into the Environmental Propaganda Agency.

As a result, we have named Whitman this month's "

Clean Air Villain of the Month

" in hope that she will finally use her stature to stand up to a hostile White House as many of her predecessors -- both Democrat and Republican -- did.

Some called on Whitman to resign following her public humiliation by the President over carbon dioxide controls and the abrupt scuttling of EPA's arsenic standards for drinking water. Whitman also raised eyebrows by declaring on May 15 that "no policy determination" had been made to drop pending lawsuits against big coal-fired utilities -- only two days before Vice President Cheney called on the Attorney General to review those suits.

We want to focus here on several recent air pollution control decisions that appear to have been dictated by the White House. In each case, EPA rhetoric did not serve the cause of truth.

Issue #1: Harming California's air to expand ethanol markets. Last week, EPA officially rejected a request by the state of California to waive what would amount to a mandate to use ethanol in cleaner-burning "reformulated" gasoline. California had argued that an ethanol mandate would increase summer smog. EPA's technical experts agreed. In the waning days of the Clinton Administration, EPA tried to propose granting California a waiver of the mandate. The White House never signed off on the proposal. Farm-state senators such as Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) claimed they prevented the green light.

Enter the Bush Administration. The ethanol industry, led by Archer Daniels Midland (a big financial contributor to the new President) revved up its lobbying engine. The White House sided with ADM and its allies. Soon EPA was crashing to complete a "new analysis" aimed at contradicting its previous conclusion -- that an ethanol mandate would mean more smog in California. Last week, Whitman made official what the White House had told its friends more than six weeks ago (long before any "new" analysis could be completed): California's waiver request was denied.

Whitman asserted the decision was "about enforcing the Clean Air Act. We believe they should have clean air, too. And the Clean Air Act calls for this oxygenate requirement and we're going to enforce the Clean Air Act. " In fact, the decision was a perversion of the Clean Air Act, and embarrassed EPA staffers know it. As the Chicago Tribune noted, the decision was driven by "political expediency, not ecological concern." EPA's credibility has been badly damaged by this action.

Issue #2: Pollution in the parks. In one of its last actions, the Clinton Administration proposed new guidelines for states to retrofit old coal-fired electric power plants and other big pollution sources that create visibility-impairing "regional haze" at national parks and wilderness areas. This proposal was frozen for months by the Bush administration. But on May 29 -- just as the President was facing criticism for his handling of the parks -- Whitman issued a press release saying that EPA "will move forward with a proposed rule to help states take steps to control haze-causing emissions from older power plants and industrial facilities."

The clear impression was that Whitman planned to "move forward" with the Clinton rule. Not so, say our sources. In fact, even as Whitman was issuing her press release, the White House Office of Management and Budget was secretly weakening the earlier proposal. The weakened version has still not been made public. Congress should investigate this matter thoroughly. Once again, Whitman's reputation for veracity has not been enhanced by this effort to help the White House with "spin control."

Issue #3: Diesel trucks and diesel fuel. As noted earlier, in February Whitman issued a press release headlined "EPA Gives the Green Light on Diesel-Sulfur Rule." But it has only recently been disclosed that the light may be yellow, not green. While Whitman was issuing the press release -- which both she and the President have cited as evidence of this Administration's environmental commitment -- she was secretly promising the White House that EPA would commission an "independent" new study of the rule. This "independent" study was avidly sought by the cash-rich petroleum industry, which hoped to use it as a pretext to weaken or delay the standards rather than spend its cash on cleanup.

There is, of course, no reason for an "independent" study. EPA already committed to conducting periodic technical reviews. And EPA already has an advisory committee on such matters. A separate study at this point sends a message to the oil companies: EPA's original standards might be weakened and/or delayed.

What is most troubling here is the lack of candor from the agency. It recalls to mind John Mitchell's famous line from the Watergate era: "Watch what we do, not what we say."

We are watching, and we don't like what we are seeing.