An Eroding Mission at EPA
The Bush administration has weakened the agency charged with safeguarding health and the environment.
WASHINGTON - On Dec. 5, 2007, EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson prepared to send the White House an extraordinary document. It declared that climate change imperiled the public welfare - a decision that would trigger the nation's first mandatory global-warming regulations.
Johnson, a career scientist, knew that his draft would meet with resistance from antiregulatory ideologues at the White House, but he believed the science was solid.
According to confidential records reviewed by The Inquirer, Johnson cited strong evidence: rises in sea level, extreme hot and cold days, ecosystem changes, melting glaciers, and more. Minor doubts about long-term effects, he wrote, were not enough to alter his conclusion.
Two sentences in Johnson's draft stood out. In sum: The U.S. emits more greenhouse gases from cars than most countries do from all pollution sources. This fact is so compelling that it alone supports The Administrator's finding.
At 2:10 p.m., Associate Deputy Administrator Jason Burnett e-mailed the climate-change draft to the White House as an attachment.
What happened next became Johnson's defining moment and cemented President Bush's environmental legacy, serving as the low-water mark of a tumultuous era that has left the EPA badly wounded, largely demoralized and, in many ways, emasculated.
White House aides - who had long resisted mandatory regulations as a way to address climate change - knew the gist of what Johnson's finding would be, Burnett said. They also knew that once they opened the attachment, it would become a public record, making it too controversial to rescind. So they didn't open it.
They called Johnson and asked him to take it back.
The law clearly stated that the final decision was the EPA administrator's, not Bush's. Johnson initially resisted - something Burnett admired - but ultimately did as he was told.
Outraged, Burnett resigned.
In July, Johnson issued a new, censored version, a pale imitation of the original climate-change document.
The old muscular language - including key sentences about U.S. car emissions and the irrelevance of any lingering doubt - was gone. Most of all, the new document no longer declared global warming a danger to public welfare. The move effectively postponed any strong action on climate change well into the next administration.
This was by no means the only example of how Johnson and an antiregulatory Bush administration weakened the federal agency charged with safeguarding human health and the environment. But what happened on climate change dwarfed everything else.
"The country and the environment have been on hold for eight years," said William K. Reilly, who led the EPA under President George H.W. Bush. "The scorecard is very, very disappointing. For a long time, conservatives have said follow the science, and in the climate-change decision, [EPA] did not follow the science - it abdicated leadership and responsibility."
Johnson, whose image over four years morphed from scientist to ideologue, will leave office as one of Bush's most loyal and controversial cabinet members. His decisions alarmed environmentalists, infuriated his own scientists, and led to calls from Democrats for his resignation.
Critics include Reilly and three other Republicans who have held the top EPA post. In interviews, they said Johnson should have exercised his legal authority to stand up to Bush on climate change.
"Here we see a real failure of leadership," said Russell Train, EPA administrator during the Nixon and Ford eras. "EPA has become a nonentity."
Johnson, a savvy Washington native who grew up discussing politics at the breakfast table, said the former administrators should know that EPA chiefs can rarely please everyone.
"There's always those who say you haven't gone far enough, and others who say you've gone too far," he said. "I won't accept the criticism that I didn't care about or didn't do anything to advance the environment."
Bush's chief White House adviser on the environment, James L. Connaughton, said the president believes Johnson has been an excellent EPA chief.
"He was a shining star from the outset," said Connaughton. "He has done as we would have expected and hoped."
A misleading story line
In the beginning, expectations for Stephen Lee Johnson were high. Even a few environmentalists welcomed his appointment as EPA administrator in 2005.
Bush pitched Johnson as a technocrat, the first EPA scientist to rise to the top spot, a person who had dedicated his career to environmental protection - not a partisan politician. But the story line was misleading.
Johnson was not plucked from obscurity on merit alone. His transition from career bureaucrat to political appointee was set in motion by a Kentucky lobbyist, with a boost from then-senior White House aide Karl Rove.
And Johnson did not join EPA in the late 1970s for the primary reason hundreds of his left-leaning contemporaries did. He joined EPA, he said, because he wanted to learn more about government regulation, which he found onerous.
These touchstones - loyalty to the president and an antiregulatory bent - became themes of the Johnson era at EPA.
During his tenure, EPA funding fell dramatically, employee morale plummeted, and priorities changed.
Johnson's proposed 2009 budget was $7.1 billion - down from $8 billion in 2005, and 26 percent lower than in 2001. Among the biggest cuts: $500 million less for states to improve sewer systems.
The unions representing most of EPA's 17,200 employees protested not just the cuts, but heavy-handed efforts to censor science in ways that benefited business over the environment.
"It's sad to see," said former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, who resigned in 2003 as Bush's first EPA administrator after repeated clashes with the White House. "It's a good agency, and there's a lot of good people there who will help you as long as they think you want to move forward. But if they think you're not serious about protecting the environment, they'll turn on you."
Perhaps one of the best insights into Johnson's vision for EPA can be found in written testimony he submitted to a Senate committee this year. In the document, Johnson laid out his top 11 goals.
No. 1 was clean energy, particularly approving drilling for "thousands of new oil and gas wells" on tribal and federal lands. No. 2 was homeland security.
Environmental enforcement and sound science ranked ninth and 10th.
"If it wasn't so sad, it would be laughable," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who chairs the committee with EPA oversight.
Johnson, who often begins work before dawn, has faced an unusual number of important environmental decisions - on climate change, ozone, lead, perchlorate, mercury, sulfur dioxide, tailpipe emissions and wetlands.
"He's stepped into more hard decisions than any other administrator," said George Gray, who left a largely industry-funded research center at Harvard University to become EPA's senior science adviser. "It's been a very, very intense time."
Critics cite some of Johnson's lesser-known decisions as evidence that he tried to overhaul EPA to benefit business, not the environment. Johnson approved pesticide testing on human subjects, lowered the monetary value of a human life by $1 million, reduced air pollution reporting requirements for corporate farms, and altered a chemical risk-assessment program that has slowed analysis to a crawl.
"What strikes me is the totality of what's happened, just one thing after another," said Francesca Grifo of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "They didn't just change the rules. They tried to change the playing field."
Johnson has been hailed by environmentalists on some fronts. For example, he recently killed the Yazoo Pumps Projects, a major Mississippi Delta flood-control program that threatened to destroy 67,000 acres of wetlands. He also recently issued more stringent limits on lead, which were generally praised.
During the Bush administration, EPA also cut diesel emissions from construction vehicles and trains by 90 percent; accelerated the Energy Star program, which guides consumers to buy energy-efficient products and use them wisely; and retrofitted 40,000 school buses to reduce soot.
EPA's list of recent achievements, as supplied by the agency's press office, include launching the WaterSense program, to help households conserve water; conducting a comprehensive ecological study of the American coastline; and being named by American University one of the "Top 10 Places to Work in the Federal Government."
John O'Grady, treasurer of the national council of local EPA unions, scoffed at that last award.
"For someone who presumably came from us, inside the agency, he's seen as a wolf in sheep's clothing," O'Grady said. "Steve Johnson is the worst administrator in our history."
Johnson, a devout Christian who peppers his speech with biblical references, said he is proud of the work he has done in the last four years, his critics notwithstanding.
"There are times when you feel like you are in the fiery furnace, but I also know that for me, personally, I answer to a much higher calling," Johnson said.
He rarely grants in-depth interviews, and during this tumultuous year he largely has limited media interaction to brief telephone news conferences.
But early one morning this fall, for nearly two hours, Johnson held forth from a rocking chair on the porch of the elegant, energy-efficient Colonial home that he designed himself on two acres in rural Maryland about an hour from Washington.
A government man through and through, Johnson wore a black pin-striped suit, an EPA lapel pin, and EPA cuff links. In the pocket of his crisp white shirt, he had an EPA pen.
His wife, Debbie, a homemaker, served steaming black coffee and thick crumb cakes.
"People don't really know me," he said.
He is, he said, as misunderstood as Bush.
"The president is really a very pro-environmental person," he said. "When we first talked, he used the phrase which is precisely, philosophically, where I've always been at EPA. He said, 'Steve, I want you to accelerate the pace of environmental protection while maintaining our nation's economic competitiveness.' "
In other words, the men agreed that the official mission of the EPA - "to protect human health and the environment" - should be unofficially amended to keep business interests in mind.
"I identify very clearly with that vision," Johnson said.
Bush and Johnson also share an antiregulatory background.
Consider the story Johnson told The Inquirer about why he joined the EPA:
It was 1979, and he was working at a private lab, Litton Bionetics Inc., in Washington. A mentor suggested he get a job at the EPA, learn about regulations from inside government, and then return to industry.
"Regulations were really frustrating," Johnson said, recalling his decision to join the EPA. "I wondered if they really understood what it was like to work in a laboratory."
Johnson insists that he is no ideologue, that he makes his decisions based on law and science independent of White House political pressure.
If that's true, said the former Republican administrators, it's been tough to see.
William Ruckelshaus, who served twice as administrator, once for Richard M. Nixon and once for Ronald Reagan, said he warned Johnson to be prepared to fight antiregulatory advocates who work in every Republican White House.
"It's very unpleasant, but if you take the job, you've got to be ready to struggle to do the right thing," Ruckelshaus said. "It's not my impression that he enjoys that."
Ruckelshaus said Johnson's reversal on climate change was especially revealing. Johnson's rationale for rescinding the White House e-mail - suggesting that a new energy law suddenly addressed part of the problem - was weak, he said.
"That was an excuse, not a reason," he said.
Whitman said Johnson was handicapped because he did not have the political clout other administrators brought to the job.
"I think he's a very decent guy, and I'd hate to see his reputation questioned because of decisions that were made by others, where he was a loyal soldier," she said.
Yet the climate-change episode was a classic example of how political interference can benefit industry, she said.
"You see it again and again," Whitman said. "When something doesn't get done, the people you are trying to regulate are better off."
A moral compass
Johnson shrugs off such criticism. He believes in the Bush agenda and, like his boss, said his resolve is fueled by his deep Christian beliefs.
It is a faith he developed early in life. Johnson's strongest association outside the EPA is his relationship with his alma mater, Taylor University, one of the nation's oldest evangelical colleges. He met his wife at Taylor, and all three of his children are graduates.
"I liked the grounding, the moral compass, that Taylor offered," he said.
Taylor is in Upland, Ind., about 75 miles northeast of Indianapolis. As one enters the main campus, a bell tower with twin spires rises into view.
One spire stands for faith, the other for reason. They are joined at the top.
"We think that's a good symbolic representation," said Taylor president Eugene Habecker. "Reason and faith need not be mutually exclusive, and that goes to the very heart of a Taylor education. . . . We are so pleased it influenced Administrator Johnson."
Johnson majored in biology. At Taylor, that includes discussion of creationism.
Taylor biology professor Timothy Burkholder, who was Johnson's adviser, said, "We would adhere to the view that God is the creator of all things and in charge of our lives, and I think Steve recognizes that and did from the beginning."
Asked about this, Johnson declined to express his views on the evolution-creation question.
"It's not a clean-cut division," the career EPA scientist said. "If you have studied at all creationism vs. evolution, there's theistic or God-controlled evolution and there's variations on all those themes."
Johnson declined to elaborate - "perhaps after Jan. 20, I'll be happy to discuss it" - except to say that it "as a practical matter has not been an issue" at the EPA.
Nonetheless, the Taylor influence on Johnson remains strong. In an EPA office filled with the usual accoutrements of a cabinet member, one of the most prominently displayed items is Johnson's honorary doctorate from his alma mater.
Susan Hazen, a longtime confidante and senior EPA official, said Johnson's faith "gives him a sense of confidence in himself."
When Johnson was named EPA administrator, he presented Bush with a religious symbol, a servant's towel given to each graduate as a reminder to serve God and country.
And when Johnson stood before a Senate committee for confirmation, he introduced his pastor as well as the leader of a Washington group called Christian Embassy, a ministry for political leaders.
Shortly after he took office, Johnson appeared in a Christian Embassy promotional video, where he spoke of holding 6:15 a.m. Bible study sessions in his EPA office.
In the video, Johnson sits on a white couch with an American flag in the background. He looks into the camera and says of his government job, "I can't imagine doing this without the Lord."
Prayer remains a central element of his life, and this includes his 24/7 job as EPA administrator, he told The Inquirer.
"Whether it's Christian Embassy or my church or people that I worship with, friends in Bible studies ... there's a lot of valuable life lessons, information, guidance and direction for me that's there."
"Just knowing that there's a group of people praying for you, who know there will be times when you are Daniel in the lion's den . . . strengthens you."
An unexpected rise
Johnson's rise from career scientist to EPA chief began in 2001, when he made the jump from civil service bureaucrat to political appointee.
The official White House version is that Johnson, who was the lead staff toxics official at EPA, caught the eye of senior Republicans during routine transition briefings. Connaughton, the senior Bush adviser, cited Johnson's keen intelligence and management skills.
But Johnson also got a political boost from an old friend, Washington lobbyist Charles Grizzle, whose clients include power companies, hospitals, shopping centers, and a formaldehyde industry association. Grizzle is also a longtime friend of Rove's; they met in the 1970s when Grizzle chaired the Kentucky Federation of College Republicans and Rove chaired the College Republican National Committee.
Grizzle and Johnson met in the early 1990s. At the time, Grizzle was an EPA assistant administrator, and Johnson had just been selected for a senior career executive mentorship program. Grizzle became Johnson's informal mentor.
"Steve and I became friends and kept in touch after I left EPA," Grizzle recalled. "After the 2000 election, I called Karl and suggested that he should take a look at Steve."
Soon after the call, Bush named Johnson to the political post Grizzle had suggested - assistant administrator for the Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances. Rove did not respond to a request for comment.
Compared with other political appointees, many still learning their way around the cavernous EPA building, Johnson excelled. He made fast friends with Bush officials and connected with the EPA career staff.
"There were no surprises with Steve," said a former EPA political appointee. "He cuts an impressive figure and knows how to impress superiors. Steve has that down cold."
Gray, the top EPA science adviser, said Johnson is a voracious reader and inquisitor. "We get down in the weeds," said Gray. "We part individual blades of grass."
But several other people who have worked closely with him say that too often politics trumped science. Former aides say the veteran scientist Johnson became subsumed by the rookie politician Johnson.
Four former Republican appointees said Johnson became so enamored of the perks of the job - trips to Camp David, flights on Air Force One, fireworks on the White House portico - that it affected his judgment, making him less likely to confront the White House.
"Here's a guy who labored in the bureaucracy for 25 years, then becomes assistant administrator, deputy, and then administrator, and all of a sudden he's being invited to spend the weekend at Camp David," said one senior Republican appointee. "I think it really did turn his head."
Johnson dismissed such talk. The perks, he said, come with a tough job.
"It's all part of the wow factor," he said. "While those are fun and exciting events - pinch-yourself type of events - the reality is that you've been asked to make very difficult decisions and are part of a team, a cabinet member."
Clearly, Johnson has been eager to execute the Bush agenda. John D. Graham, who was the regulatory guru of the White House Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2006, said one of Johnson's biggest accomplishments as assistant administrator was the repeal of a Clinton-era ban on human pesticide testing.
"Johnson faced a dilemma," said Graham, now dean of the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs.
The human testing studies were not perfect; some did not meet modern ethical standards, Graham said. But advocates were pushing for a ban regardless of their scientific value.
Johnson fixed that. He played a key role in reversing the ban, Graham said, fulfilling a goal shared by Bush and the pesticide industry.
"The White House loved Steve because he was the ultimate staffer," said another Republican colleague who worked at EPA. "He knew how to get things done."
When Whitman abruptly resigned in 2003, Johnson filled a void in the No. 2 slot - as acting deputy administrator - then remained when former Utah governor Michael Leavitt was named administrator. In 2005, when Leavitt got the job he really wanted - secretary of health and human services - Johnson became acting administrator. He lobbied for the top job, competing with three others.
Hazen said she warned her friend that the second Bush term would be fraught with complicated, nuanced decisions, and was destined to be controversial.
"My question to him was: Do you really want this? You've had a phenomenal career. You are well-respected. Do you really want to be the one making these hard decisions, charting new territory?"
Ironically, Johnson's success at restoring human testing while assistant administrator nearly derailed his Senate confirmation for the top job.
One of the new human tests was the Children's Health Environmental Exposure Research Study (CHEERS). Funded with $2 million from the chemical industry, CHEERS proposed to record the effects of household pesticides on low-income children in Florida. EPA gave participating families $970, a video camera to record exposure, and a CHEERS T-shirt, calendar and baby bib. EPA scientists would collect urine samples and the children would wear a watch-size sensor one week each month.
Several Democrats were aghast. Boxer and other Democrats put a public hold on his nomination.
"Ethics 101: Testing pesticides on small children and infants is wrong," Boxer said. "This is sick. It's a sick, sick thing."
EPA officials said that the senators were overreacting, that CHEERS merely paid families already using pesticides to monitor their children. Johnson, who began his EPA career in the pesticide office, said that although EPA had no improper ethical intent, it could no longer overcome such an appearance.
He canceled CHEERS - though not other human testing programs - and the senators removed the hold on his confirmation.
Asked if he killed CHEERS because of the Senate hold - if he made a political decision instead of a scientific one - Johnson replied, "That is an unfortunate characterization."
The timing, he said, was just a coincidence.
Boxer, when told of Johnson's recollection of events, fumed:
Leaders of national environmental groups never expected a Bush-run EPA to be eco-friendly, but several welcomed Johnson's appointment.
They figured that as a career scientist who had worked at EPA for a quarter-century, he would act reasonably.
"I made a mistake," said Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope. "What surprises me is that the Bush second term is worse than the first."
Ken Cook, who leads the Environmental Working Group, which advocates for stronger pesticide regulation, said he also feels betrayed.
"The day he was named administrator, Steve called to tell me he was excited and looking forward to working with me," said Cook, who was quoted in newspapers praising Johnson's appointment.
"That's the last time we ever spoke," Cook said. "It proved impossible for me to get a meeting with him."
Jeff Ruch, who runs the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said EPA staff hoped that Johnson, a career employee following a string of politicians, would usher in a new era of candor and respect.
"That just didn't happen," Ruch said, "If anything, he appeared less able to protect the agency from political interference."
Frustrated, several environmental groups began to simply sidestep EPA. They said they found corporate executives more receptive.
"After banging our heads into walls repeatedly," said Jacqueline Savitz of the advocacy group Oceana, "we figured out that we had a better chance of convincing private corporations to do the right thing than we did convincing EPA."
When, for example, the EPA refused to regulate waste-water pollution from cruise ships, Oceana and other environmental groups approached Royal Caribbean Cruises directly. To date, Royal Caribbean has spent more than $100 million to retrofit its fleet, said senior executive Jamie Sweeting.
"We decided to look at this from a science perspective - what the marine biologists told us - rather than from a political perspective," he said. "In the end, we wanted to get out ahead of the problem and do the right thing."
Cars, Congress and the FBI
While Johnson's tenure has been filled with controversial decisions, two flash points erupted back to back in December 2007.
First came the climate-change e-mail incident on Dec. 5.
Then, about two weeks later, came Johnson's big decision on the so-called California waiver - a request by 19 states, including New Jersey and Pennsylvania, for permission to enact stricter tailpipe emission standards.
California sought to reduce car emissions 30 percent by the 2016 model year. EPA had never denied a waiver request from California, but now the auto and oil industries were lobbying the Bush administration to reject it.
An energy bill that included a new but weaker national standard was moving through Congress, and industry lobbyists argued that one national tailpipe standard was better than two.
The EPA career scientists countered that California, given its pollution problems, both natural and man-made, was legally qualified to receive the waiver. In a series of PowerPoint presentations, staff scientists, economists, engineers and lawyers warned Johnson that if the waiver was denied, California was "almost certain" to sue and EPA was "likely to lose."
Senior EPA scientists appealed to Reilly, the former administrator, to lobby Johnson and prepared talking points for him: "You have to find a way to get this done," the talking points read. "If you cannot, you will face a pretty big personal decision about whether you are able to stay in the job. . . ."
Reilly didn't use the talking points, but he did try to persuade Johnson that it was a states-rights issue, and also one of oil independence.
"The argument I received was that Detroit was up against its back to make these changes, but my answer was, 'You have enough time, until 2016, so why not let California drive the system?' " Reilly said. "I don't understand what's wrong with that analysis."
As is his style, Johnson listened to staff presentations and repeatedly asked everyone in the room for an opinion. According to sworn statements to Congress by seven EPA officials, no one at EPA advised Johnson to deny California's request. Handwritten notes by meeting attendees supported this view, congressional investigators said.
"All agreed on granting waiver," scribbled one EPA official.
When Johnson traveled to the White House in early December, aides said, they assumed it was to explain EPA's rationale.
"He went over there with our talking points about granting the waiver," said Burnett, the former deputy associate administrator. Burnett, an heir to a California computer fortune who has contributed $86,000 to Democratic candidates since 2006, added, "When he came back from the meeting, he said he had been reminded of the president's policy preferences."
Johnson rejected California's request, he said, because greenhouse gases contribute to a global and national problem, not one limited to individual states.
EPA had not planned to release the decision immediately, but on Dec. 19 - the same day Bush signed the new energy law that created a national fuel standard - several reporters got wind of it.
Johnson rushed forth an announcement, tying the new energy law to the waiver.
The hurried nature surprised EPA scientists and environmentalists, and drew the ire of two Californians who chair committees that oversee the EPA. They called the decision cowardly. Once again, they said, Johnson had caved to the White House.
The White House called the decision brave.
"It was a classic example of Steve making a decision on the merits for the good of the environment and for the good of the economy - classic," said Connaughton, the senior White House adviser. "Denying the waiver had no environmental consequence, and . . . approving it would have caused massive economic disruption."
Whitman, who resigned from EPA in 2003 over a similar battle with the White House, said, "I think that argument is a little hollow."
In interviews and congressional appearances that followed, Johnson declined to directly talk about White House involvement. He said again and again, "The decision was mine and mine alone."
Critics didn't believe him.
Citing e-mails and testimony of others, some Senate Democrats said Johnson's testimony that he acted alone was suspicious - so suspicious they asked the FBI to investigate him for perjury, a case that remains open.
For Johnson, the California waiver decision marked the beginning of what would be a very rough year: The courts declared the pillars of his air pollution agenda illegal. The Union of Concerned Scientists issued a report documenting hundreds of instances of political interference with scientific work at EPA. When Johnson strengthened EPA ozone standards, his own scientists complained that he ignored their advice to make limits even stronger.
Exasperated, four Democratic senators, including Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, called for Johnson's resignation.
"There are real human consequences whenever Administrator Johnson takes a dive," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D., R.I.)
On the Senate floor, he said: "We have seen EPA's clear mission darkened by the shadowy handiwork of the Bush White House - trampling on science, ignoring the facts, flouting the law, defying Congress and the courts while kneeling before industry polluters, and all for rank and venal purposes."
By late summer, congressional hearings took on such a prosecutorial tone that Johnson simply stopped showing up. At a final Senate oversight hearing in September, he refused to send anyone at all from the EPA.
"I wonder if he's still glad he took the job," mused Ruckelshaus.
Johnson said he is.
But he bristled at the specter of being the subject of an FBI investigation. When he was asked about it, his eyes narrowed. He said that hardball politics doesn't bother him, but that the personal attacks are unfair.
He isn't worried about the investigation, he said, because his testimony to Congress was accurate.
"I'm an experienced bureaucrat - very experienced bureaucrat - and I spend many hours practicing for hearings, and also have an outstanding command of the facts and figures," he said. "This too shall pass."
Johnson says this now - but eight months ago, he nearly resigned.
"Things were really wacky," said Gray, the assistant administrator for research. "It's a very difficult thing when people disagree with a science policy issue; they personalize it. Instead of being a disagreement about whether people are more like mice or rats, it's a question of: Is Steve Johnson a good person?"
Said Hazen, his longtime friend: "You can tell when someone is sagging under the weight of this."
Johnson said Bush told him to hang in there. The EPA administrator prayed about it, and one day, while riding to work in the SUV driven by his security detail, he found himself reading a book of inspirational quotes by Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln had said:
"I don't boast of being in God's will, I humbly pray that I am in his will."
Johnson took it as a sign that he should not resign.
"It was a providential reading," he said, "not an accident."
A weaker document
Johnson decided to stay on the job, in part, to see through the revised climate-change findings.
Indeed, in July, to great fanfare, Johnson posted his new global-warming document on EPA's Web site and published it in the Federal Register.
It ran roughly 1,000 pages long, but it was far weaker than the one he had originally e-mailed to the White House in December 2007.
The original document remains confidential - the EPA has allowed four U.S. senators to read it under closely guarded conditions. Records reviewed by The Inquirer show that the weakened public version Johnson released in July no longer contained his critical personal backing on several scientific findings, which would have made them official policy of the EPA.
Most of all, the revised document did not include Johnson's original declaration that greenhouse gases endanger public welfare.
Johnson instead echoed the White House's wishes and called for more study on global warming, delaying any dramatic government action until the next administration took office.
Johnson is known for his even temper and his ability to keep cool under pressure, to stick to carefully rehearsed talking points. But in a second interview, when pressed about his about-face on climate change, he grew exasperated.
"Look, I know there is a pent-up desire in the environmental community, whether it's former administrators or environmental advocates, to begin regulating greenhouse gases now," he said. "What I'm trying to do is provide some rationality to the debate based on the best available science . . . that keeps in mind the economic consequences as well as energy security."
But almost every person who has held Johnson's job says that the science makes the next step clear, and that the revised climate-change document represented an embarrassing whitewash.
"The difference between my time and now is that we had computer models," said Reilly, administrator from 1989 to 1993. "Now they have observations in Greenland and the Arctic and Alaska. We know this is upon us. It becomes increasingly indefensible not to act."
Lee Thomas, EPA chief during Reagan's second term, said the United States has a responsibility to lead the world on climate change.
"If we don't do it, then who will?"
Online extras including video interviews and interactive graphics at http://go.philly.com/epaEndText