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You have mail! It’s two years late

When I heard that the Environmental Protection Agency had finally released its 2007 endangerment finding for greenhouse gases, I was immediately reminded of one of the most perverse moments in Bush administration secrecy: the Unopened Email, which Jon Stewart lampooned back in the summer of 2008. The EPA’s draft policy statement, which had been kept secret until this week, was a required action on the road to regulating greenhouse gas emissions, after the Supreme Court decision in April 2007 in Massachusetts v. EPA. The finding expresses that EPA judges a pollutant to be a threat to public health and welfare and therefore regulation is warranted.

The Congressional hearings that followed in July 2008 were just as bizarre. Senator Barbara Boxer held up pages of the document provided by EPA that had been redacted with tape. She had been permitted to review the document, but not to disclose its contents, and she was clearly disturbed that this information would be kept secret.

Of course, at the time, as now, she was deep in a legislative battle to push action on regulating greenhouse gas, and the EPA statement could have been a powerful tool for making the case that decisive action was needed, that it was needed now, and that there was a path to cut greenhouse gas emissions and protect the climate.

Stephen Johnson, administrator of EPA at the time, repeatedly explained that his staff had recommended that an endangerment finding be made, but that in the end, it was his decision. In spite of the fact that he was brought in to meet with President Bush, Vice President Cheney and other top-level administration staff, Johnson maintained that he had made the assessment based on his own best judgment.

But looking at the draft endangerment finding today, it would be insulting to Mr. Johnson’s career as a scientist at the EPA to conclude that he could read the evidence provided to him by his staff and not make a decision not to recommend regulation based on its content.

Of course, EPA issued a proposed endangerment finding in April 2009. A final statement is expected before the end of this year. It is a different time in U.S. climate policy. The release today of EPA’s 2007 draft endangerment finding provides insight into what EPA and the Bush administration knew. But we all knew back then that greenhouse gases were contributing to climate change, and that failure to curb them would have consequences for public health and welfare. This should serve as a reminder that action can’t wait.