States vs. White House on Environment

It’s no secret that Bush’s presidency has been disastrous for the environment. One of the most well-known examples is the White House’s attempt to deny the human causes and human health consequences of climate change. Earlier this month, new evidence came to light indicating that Dick Cheney’s office pressured the EPA to delete “any discussion of the human health consequences of climate change” from testimony by the senior official of the Center for Disease Control (CDC). In response, the document was cut from 14 to six pages—“eviscerated”, according to anonymous comments by CDC officials.

Later, when the EPA, under Supreme Court mandate, completed a report finding that climate change poses public health risks, the White House refused to acknowledge it. Jason Burnett, former EPA associate deputy administrator, was asked to pretend the document had been sent in error.

Unfortunately these examples represent not the exception but the rule. Such political interference with science has been common throughout Bush’s presidency; 60% of EPA staff report that their work was politically influenced. So what happens when the White House impedes the progress of environmental science and regulation?

It’s the states that take up the fight– often against the federal government.
Take, for example, two recent California regulations aimed at reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from transportation. The first regulation aims to reduce tailpipe emissions and would have a significant impact on air quality and GHG emissions, since automotive transportation is currently one of the biggest—and least regulated—sources of carbon emissions.

Unfortunately, in order to regulate anything pertaining to interstate commerce (which includes most forms of transportation), states have to seek a waiver from the EPA. Remember Jason Burnett? He resigned, not after being asked to ignore the EPA finding on climate change, but after the EPA refused to grant this waiver. California responded with a lawsuit that was dismissed last week on a technicality. While another lawsuit has been filed, the litigation will take many months, and a decision may not be made until after the end of the Bush presidency.

The second example is a regulation, recently adopted by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), requiring ocean-going vessels to use cleaner fuels while in California’s coastal waters. This regulation, requiring ships to switch from bunker fuel to low-sulfur fuel by 2009, will reduce diesel particulate matter and sulfur dioxide emissions from shipping by 75 and 80 percent respectively, preventing an estimated 3,600 premature deaths.

The Pacific Merchants Shipping Association (PMSA) claims that the CARB is legally required to obtain a waiver from the EPA in order to pursue these regulations– indeed, a previous attempt at regulating ship emissions was overruled in court because the CARB did not have a waiver. In other words, the CARB regulation potentially faces the same problem as that faced by the regulation on tail-pipe emissions. Perhaps the CARB deems it safer to risk another lawsuit than to demand another waiver from the EPA during Bush’s presidency.

Fortunately, not all state-level environmental legislation requires such a go-ahead from the federal government. States are free to regulate stationary emissions, for example, or to decouple utilities (a system that dissociates energy utility profits from consumption levels and has enabled California’s energy consumption to plateau while the rest of the country’s continues to rise), or pursue a number of other regulations that have helped to resolve many environmental problems.

While states are frequently the innovators and proponents of environmental regulation and have a significant impact on protecting the environment and public health, the federal government still has an important role to play. Hopefully the next administration will cooperate with the environmental goals of states, rather than interfering with them.

Herrera, Tilde. “California Adopts Strict Emissions Rules for Ships.” Jul. 28, 2008.

GreenBiz staff. “California Effort to Regulate Emissions Hits Roadblock.” Jul. 29, 2008.

Schor, Elana. “Cheney accused of suppressing testimony on climate change’s risks.” Jul. 8, 2008.