Lumps of coal for the governors

Published 4:52 pm Monday, January 21, 2008

When George W. Bush was governor of Texas, fellow Republicans in state houses across the country helped boost his presidential campaign. But many Republican governors are now boiling mad at the Bush administration’s latest attempt to appease the auto industry and ignore global warming.

In a decision that defies good sense and good science, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Stephen L. Johnson, denied requests by California and 17 other states to impose tough new auto-emissions standards. His flimsy rationale: State efforts were unnecessary because Bush signed a bill upgrading national mileage goals for new cars and trucks.

In other words, Washington is saying to the states: Don’t clean up your own air or improve the lives of your own citizens beyond the limits that we allow. “Laughable, patently absurd,” insisted Gov. Jodi Rell of Connecticut. The EPA, added Gov. Jim Douglas of Vermont, “is out of touch with the reality of climate change.”

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But the most scathing words came from the most powerful Republican governor of them all, Arnold Schwarzenegger of California. He dubbed the EPA the “Environmental Destruction Agency” and thundered: “Anything less than aggressive action on the greatest environmental threat of all time is inexcusable.”

He’s right — there’s no excuse for this decision. The administration argues against creating a confusing “patchwork” of rules, but the 18 states involved account for almost half the country and more are sure to follow — hardly a “patchwork” by any definition.

That’s why the reaction has been overwhelmingly negative. Schwarzenegger and his fellow governors are determined to sue; Congress has already announced oversight hearings; the New York Times called the decision “an indefensible act of executive arrogance.”

That arrogance starts with science. Bush has long questioned the theories behind global warming and derided the Kyoto treaty controlling greenhouse gases. The evidence keeps mounting — all those unhappy polar bears are not in a Disney movie, they’re real — so the president changed his language, paying lip service to the problem. But in his heart, Bush is clearly still a skeptic.

The president’s decision does more than ignore science, however — it ignores the law. For years, the EPA argued that it lacked the power to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Massachusetts and 12 other states sued the agency in federal court, demanding that EPA control those pollutants, and last April, the Supreme Court ruled that the states were right.

“The harms associated with climate change are serious and well recognized,” the court stated, and the damage suffered by the states because of EPA’s foot-dragging was “actual” and “imminent.”

Two lower courts have also sided firmly with the states, with one saying, “Congress has essentially designated California as a proving ground for innovation in emission-control regulations.” In fact, EPA’s own staff recommended to Johnson that he grant the waivers and told him bluntly: If you don’t, you’ll be sued and you’ll lose.

In the past, Bush has made some terrible decisions: Restricting federal financing for stem-cell research is one, and blocking the expansion of health insurance for needy kids is another. But at least the president had coherent reasons in those cases: Stem-cell research violated his pro-life principles; the insurance bill broke his no-new-taxes pledge.

In this case, the president is contradicting a bedrock conservative value: Allowing local governments, outside of Washington, to tailor solutions that fit the needs of their own people.

“It’s always been the case that if the federal government has fallen short on anything, the states come in,” Schwarzenegger told Time magazine. “The federal government has said many times that we are the laboratories. … Let’s have the states try something, if it’s health care, education, whatever it is, because we all know all great things start at the grassroots level. Why are we all of a sudden fighting that?”

Some issues involve basic rights and require national solutions — banning racial discrimination, for example, or protecting food safety. But on many other issues, “great things” do start at the grassroots level. Wisconsin pioneered welfare reform and instigated changes at the national level. Massachusetts is now experimenting with new ways to expand health-insurance coverage.

After a lifetime of advocating state-level solutions, the president has now decided that, on climate change, Washington knows best and there’s only one explanation. He’s caving in to the auto industry, which has lost in every other forum: the federal courts, the Congress, the science laboratories. Bush has given the nation’s governors lumps of coal in their Christmas stockings. Dirty-burning coal at that.

(Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at