POLITICS: Sinking Steve Johnson

We’ve known for weeks that EPA chief Steve Johnson ignored his staff in his rush to refuse California the right to regulate vehicle emissions. In the last few days, though, the full extent of his brazen abuse of power has become apparent.

A congressional investigation, led by Senate environment chair Barbara Boxer, has been trying to get to the bottom of the murky decision-making process that led Johnson to deny the Golden State a federal waiver. The EPA hasn’t made things easy for her, resisting requests for the release of papers pertaining to the case; it finally caved in only after claiming “executive privilege” and whiting out page after page of the documents.

Boxer wryly noted that the Agency’s justification for the coverup was based on a Nixon-era case connected to the Watergate scandal. Fortunately, she managed to circumvent the official channels: her aides went to the EPA in person, and bagged an unredacted copy of a PowerPoint slideshow prepared for Johnson, setting out the Agency’s legal and scientific findings on the case.

Shamelessly, the EPA asked Boxer to keep the content of the slides under her hat; she refused, and released the information to reporters. Stunningly, the slideshow directly and explicitly contradicts much of what Johnson told the public; most tellingly, it makes clear that Johnson was telling porkies when he justified his decision by claiming that California had failed to meet the “compelling and extraordinary conditions” required for an EPA waiver.

Johnson’s PowerPoint briefing thoroughly debunks that view, clearly stating that California “continues to have compelling and extraordinary conditions in general … as confirmed by several recent EPA decisions." Hammering the point home, it notes that the Golden State is especially at risk from global warming, with its varied and vulnerable ecosystems seriously threatened by wildfires, water shortages, insect outbreaks, overpopulation, air pollution and rising ozone levels.

In short, Johnson didn’t merely sideline his staff: he steamrollered them, issuing a decision that flagrantly misrepresented the unanimous judgments of his legal and scientific experts. Having done so, he sought to cover up his actions and keep elected congressional investigators from casting light on his shady behavior.

It’s increasingly clear that for Johnson - who got dragged over the coals at a Senate hearing yesterday, but has yet to admit doing anything wrong - only one opinion matters: his own. But the contempt he’s shown for the public and for his own staff has irrevocably damaged the EPA; as long as Johnson remains at the helm, it will be impossible for the agency to recover any shred of legal or scientific credibility.

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I am flabbergasted. Is there a way the public can oust him?

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