Administrator Stephen Johnson has become a familiar face on Capitol Hill because of his controversial stewardship of the Environmental Protection Agency. Life in the spotlight is something new for Johnson, 57, who spent most of his 27 years at EPA as a midlevel bureaucrat. Insiders describe the administrator as a congenial, go-along-to-get-along kind of person who enjoys the perks of his office. The following are excerpts from his March 28 interview with National Journal.
NJ: You recently scrapped a staff proposal to regulate car and truck emissions under the Clean Air Act as directed in the Supreme Court's global-warming decision [PDF]. Why start over?
Johnson: Here's what happened. As the agency was preparing its regulations, Congress passed the Energy Independence and Security Act, raising the fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks. People tend to forget that the primary way to control carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles is through fuel economy. There isn't a catalytic converter that you just put in and capture the greenhouse-gas emissions.
Also, at the same time, it became very apparent to me that a decision spotlighting just cars and trucks would have had significant implications under the Clean Air Act [requiring EPA to regulate] stationary sources, whether they are factories or coal-fired power plants or hospitals or schools. And so I took an approach to look at the implications of the Clean Air Act across all the sources.
NJ: You recently issued an ozone pollution limit that's weaker than the one unanimously recommended by EPA's independent Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee. Why?
Johnson: The law requires that I make a decision and set a [primary] standard that is requisite to protect public health with an adequate margin of safety. CASAC chose a [pollution cap] within the range of 60 to 70 [parts per billion of ozone]. After CASAC met, we did additional evaluation. I concluded that there was additional uncertainty [about the scientific data]. So I went to a 75 ppb level to make sure there was an adequate margin of safety.
NJ: Did the White House force you to change the ozone standard?
Johnson: Well, the health protective standard was my decision, and my decision alone. The only issue [that the White House changed] was the form of the secondary standard [to protect "public welfare," including animals, vegetation, and crops]. It was a policy judgment, not an issue of protectiveness of the environment. The form of the standard, that policy decision, went all the way to the president. And certainly I agree with that policy direction.
NJ: Critics allege that EPA staff members opposed your decision denying California's request for a waiver to develop its own program for controlling greenhouse-gas emissions. True?
Johnson: What was presented to me was a range of options, all of which were legally defensible. And that range included denial of the petition. Under the Clean Air Act there are three criteria for denying a waiver. One of them is whether there are compelling and extraordinary conditions for California that make [it] unique. But California is not unique [in how it will be affected by climate change]. This is a global problem.
NJ: You've been accused of ignoring EPA experts and caving in to White House orders on environmental issues.
Johnson: That is the furthest thing from the truth. Each of these decisions is my decision, my decision alone. One of the things that I've learned in my 27 years at EPA and being in a variety of decision-making capacities is that it's not a popularity contest. I need to understand what the law directs me to do, and understand what the science also directs me to do, and then, ultimately, what is the appropriate public policy, given those. These are not easy decisions. I completely reject the fact that I don't listen to my staff.
NJ: Congress is concerned that you're spending $280,000 for a two-week trip to Australia.
Johnson: It's all part of the continuing collaboration between Australia and the United States. I, as administrator, have taken a very limited number of international trips. It's an important trip, and we're very open and transparent about our activities. This [congressional criticism] is much ado about nothing and certainly might be viewed by some as an unnecessary outburst of concern when we ought to be doing orderly business with our international partners to help improve the environment.