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Cheney’s office tried to alter greenhouse gas testimony, former official says

Cheney’s office tried to alter greenhouse gas testimony, former official says

The new charges of political interference could boost efforts by California and other states to implement their own vehicle emission standards over White House opposition.

By Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer 
July 9, 2008
WASHINGTON — Vice President Dick Cheney’s office worked to alter sworn congressional testimony provided by a federal official in order to play down the threat of global warming and head off regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, a former government official said in a new accusation Tuesday.

Jason K. Burnett, a former Environmental Protection Agency official, cited the behind-the-scenes efforts by unnamed officials in Cheney’s office in a letter to congressional investigators regarding testimony in January by his former boss, EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson.

Burnett appeared at a news conference Tuesday with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who said his statements could boost efforts by California and other states to implement their own vehicle emission standards over White House opposition. Boxer plans to call Burnett to testify later this month before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which she chairs.

His charges are likely to give Bush administration critics new ammunition in their efforts to portray executive-branch actions on the environment as driven by politics, rather than science.

Administration pressure also was cited in changes to testimony by the head of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in October and in an attempt to prevent the EPA from taking a step toward regulating greenhouse gas emissions in December.

The Supreme Court ruled last year that the EPA was required to evaluate whether greenhouse gas emissions posed a risk and, if so, implement regulations on polluters. President Bush has opposed mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, oil refineries and other polluters, contending such steps would drive up energy costs and hurt the economy.

But White House efforts to edit testimony were “clearly misconduct, in terms of interfering with scientific information,” said Bettina Poirier, staff director for the environment committee. However, she said, she was still examining whether those actions violated the law.

For Cheney, the new accusation, coming as he winds down his time in Washington, is similar to criticism he faced early in his vice presidency over private meetings he held to shape national energy policy. Then, as now, the White House refused to turn over documents sought by congressional investigators. 

Cheney spokeswoman Lea Anne McBride responded: “We won’t discuss internal deliberations.”

Burnett resigned as the EPA’s associate deputy administrator last month. He also has contributed $4,600 to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s campaign.

EPA Administrator Johnson, in testimony before Boxer’s committee in January, planned to tell senators that “greenhouse gas emissions harm the environment.”

However, Burnett said in a letter to Boxer, “an official in the office of the vice president called to tell me that his office wanted the language changed.” He said he didn’t make the change. Johnson delivered the testimony as planned.

In one of the previous instances, administration officials extensively edited testimony in October by Dr. Julie L. Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, removing six pages she planned to deliver.

Administration efforts to alter her testimony have been previously reported. But, in a new allegation, Burnett charged Tuesday that Cheney’s office had been involved in efforts to delete portions of her testimony on the health risks of climate change. He declined to identify who in the vice president’s office had sought the changes. 

In December, Burnett said, he sent the White House an e-mail finding, in response to the Supreme Court ruling, that greenhouse gas emissions pose a risk, a step toward regulation. But shortly after, Burnett said, “I was asked to send a follow-up note saying that the e-mail had been sent in error.” 

“I explained that I could not do this because it was not true,” he said.

The new charges of political interference come as California works to overturn a federal decision in December denying California and other states permission to impose stricter emission standards than the federal government. 

Congressional Democrats have tried to get records of White House communications with the EPA on the issue, but the White House recently invoked executive privilege in refusing to turn over documents to a congressional committee investigating the EPA’s decision to deny California’s request.

But with Burnett, a Stanford-trained environmental economist, Democrats have a star witness who may be able to offer new insight into the White House’s role in a number of EPA decisions at the planned July 22 Senate hearing.

Boxer said the White House was trying to prevent the government from acting on a threat to human health and the environment. She said: “History will judge this Bush administration harshly for recklessly covering up a real threat to the people they’re supposed to protect.”

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