The Dirt on Gases
EPA’s global warming whistle blower Jason Burnett sets his sights on local politics.
Thursday, August 14, 2008
During his first stint with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Jason K. Burnett tried to set tougher standards for lethal soot particles. The Bush administration killed the proposal; shortly thereafter, Burnett quit. About a year later, in 2007, he returned to the EPA, this time charged with developing climate change policy. Again, according to Burnett and his supporters (including Sen. Barbara Boxer), the White House ignored scientists and staff. And again Burnet resigned before blowing the whistle on what he describes as the White House’s refusal to protect the public and regulate greenhouse gases.
These days, Burnett, 31, is a long way from Washington, D.C., where he lived for the past nine years. Today, he’s sitting on a park bench in Carmel-by-the-Sea, blocks away from his recently purchased home. He grew up in the area and has strong ties to Monterey County (his parents, Robin Burnett and Nancy Packard Burnett, are two of the founders of the Monterey Bay Aquarium; Jason and Nancy sit on the David and Lucile Packard Foundation Board of Trustees).
Burnett says he plans to get involved in local politics, and he’s volunteering and fundraising for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, and Democratic Rep. Sam Farr, who is running for reelection in November. Burnett continues to work on a report– for the next president– on how the federal government can use the Clean Air Act to cut CO2 emissions. He still flies to Washington about once a month to testify at Senate environment committee hearings.
The policy background, campaign experience, Carmel residency and family wealth seem to add up to a future run for office– say, Farr’s seat when the longtime congressman retires.
“Jason did his job with the EPA well, and now he has moved back to California where he is clearly gearing up for a run for Congress, where he can spend all that family money and run for office,” EPA spokesman Jonathan Shradar says. “In Washington, he caught the political bug.”
For his part, Farr’s office says the incumbent has no plans to spend more time on Central Coast golf courses– or bocce ball courts. “Congressman Farr has no plans to retire, and all signs point to him running in 2010,” spokesman Tom Mentzer says.
Burnett won’t say he wants the job.
“At this point, that’s way ahead of where I am,” Burnett says in a later telephone interview. “I’m interested in getting involved in local issues, and in local politics.”
Nor will he rule it out completely.
“I’m not going to rule out any options,” he says, “but right now I’m just focused on getting reengaged in the community here, and I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do next after working with Sen. Boxer on the [climate change] reports for the next president. There’s a wide range of opportunities, I’m sure. I’d rather not speculate as to what comes next before I figure that out.”Massachusetts vs. EPA, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “greenhouse gases fit well within the Clean Air Act’s capacious definition of ‘air pollutant,’ ” and must be regulated if they endanger public health.
“It’s a profound decision that will have ramifications that last for a long, long time because the Supreme Court found that existing law applies to greenhouse gases,” Burnett says. “What this means: The debate in Congress will shift from whether we regulate greenhouse gases to how we regulate greenhouse gases. If Congress passes new regulations– great. If it doesn’t pass new regulations, then we will simply apply existing laws. But regulation is coming, either under the Clean Air Act or under new laws.”
A couple of months later, Johnson asked Burnett to return to the EPA as associate deputy administrator charged with responding to the Supreme Court’s decision and developing climate change policy. Burnett says he remained skeptical that the Bush administration was serious about regulating CO2 emissions. But on May 14, 2007, Bush issued an executive order directing the EPA and other federal departments to “take the first steps towards regulations that would cut gasoline consumption and greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles… ”
Burnett accepted the post. “It was a really exciting time,” Burnett remembers. “It looked like we would actually get started on the first federal policy to reduce greenhouse gases.”
It was also a busy time, with months of meetings between EPA officials, scientists, lawyers and White House staff. The first order of business: determining whether greenhouse gases endangered public health or welfare.
“The basic legal construct of the Clean Air Act,” Burnett explains, is “if the public is endangered, then regulation must happen.”
The Bush administration ultimately agreed with the scientists, Burnett says, and decided to regulate CO2. “The policy process culminated in a cabinet-level meeting in November 2007 where agreement was reached that greenhouse gases endangered the public and therefore that regulation was required,” Burnett says in prepared testimony for the July 22 Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
In early December 2007, as the EPA prepared the “endangerment finding” for review by the While House Office of Management and Budget, Burnett says, he read key sections of the draft to OMB staff to ensure that the federal officials were all in agreement. He got the OK that the finding was ready for formal review. On Dec. 5, 2007, Burnett sent an e-mail to OMB Administrator Susan Dudley that contained the finding that that greenhouse gases endanger public welfare. Minutes later, OMB officials called the EPA.
“Seven minutes later we received a phone call from the general counsel’s office of OMB, asking EPA not to send the document. We said we already sent it over. We were then told the president’s Deputy Chief of Staff Joel Kaplan wanted to talk with the administrator [Johnson].” Burnett sat in on the call.
“Joel Kaplan asked if I would send a follow-up e-mail saying my previous e-mail had been sent in error. I said, ‘No, it wouldn’t be true.’ On their end, OMB was directed not to open my e-mail because in opening my e-mail, they would be in receipt of a finding of public endangerment.
“Moving forward and responding to the Supreme Court would lead to more regulations and President Bush had put in place policies to reduce the regulatory burden of the Clean Air Act. It came down to a question of better policy or maintaining the president’s legacy of reducing the regulatory burden and the president’s legacy won out.”
After the president signed the energy bill into law, Burnett says, the political will changed. “The new law accomplished the president’s energy goals, by and large, and he did not need EPA to respond to the Supreme Court. The energy bill didn’t change the law, didn’t change the science, didn’t change the fact that the public is endangered. But it did change the political calculation.”
Burnett resigned in early June. A month later, he described the events to Boxer, who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and stood with her at a news conference where she accused the Bush administration of “recklessly covering up a real threat to the people they are supposed to protect.”
On July 22, Burnett testified at the Senate committee hearing.
“Jason’s Burnett’s testimony provided powerful confirmation that the White House and the vice president’s office have been at the center of the effort to block real action on global warming,” Boxer says.
Two days later, Republicans boycotted the committee meeting, blocking a vote to subpoena the EPA endangerment finding. James M. Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican and the ranking minority member on the committee who famously called global warming a “hoax,” said in prepared testimony that he would not support an investigation into what Boxer called “White House efforts to censor or reject EPA proposed findings.”
“I consider this debate over censorship within the administration to be a nonissue,” Inhofe said.
The White House finally agreed to let committee members review the document, but would not allow them to keep it or make copies of it. In a July 24 news conference, Boxer blasted the Bush administration for its secrecy and read parts of the EPA’s proposed endangerment finding. “Based on the information before the Administrator, the Administrator proposes to find that, in his judgment, the elevated, combined atmospheric concentrations of the six greenhouse gases are reasonably anticipated to endanger public welfare,” it says. “… the scientific evidence regarding changes to the environment and changes to the climate that result from elevated levels of greenhouse gases supports this proposed finding.”
The committee is slated to hold another hearing Sept. 23.
“The Environment and Public Works Committee is planning a hearing and is preparing a report on the ways in which the Clean Air Act can be used to start reducing global warming pollution right away, without any further legislative action,” Boxer says. “I want to make sure that the next President and the new Congress have all the tools and information they need to start addressing the challenge of global warming from day one.”
At the hearing, Burnett will discuss how the Clean Air Act may be used to regulate CO2 emissions. “The next administration,” he says, “will need to do what this administration didn’t do: follow the law.”