The executive director of California's air-quality board, which is responsible for implementing the state's landmark environmental emissions law, has resigned amid allegations that the office of the Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has been deliberately getting in the way of its work.
The unexpected ruckus is deeply embarrassing for a governor who has visited capitals worldwide, including London last week, touting his state as an example to everyone because of its supposed commitment to cutting noxious emissions by 25 per cent by 2020.
Catherine Witherspoon announced she was stepping down from the board just days after the Governor fired its chairman, Robert Sawyer, on the grounds he was dragging his feet in imposing the cuts on industry. He, however, has claimed the contrary - that he was moving too fast and that aides to the Governor were trying to hold up measures that would hurt business.
The Governor's administration has "lost its way on air quality," Ms Witherspoon said after her departure. She said the charge that she and Mr Sawyer were not doing more to implement the new law, the Global Warming Solutions Act, was nothing if not "Orwellian - a triumph of appearances over reality".
Indeed, Mr Sawyer released transcripts this week of voice-mails he had received from aides to the Governor requesting that the board, at a recent meeting, limit itself to adopting three new measures on cutting emissions, when it had four on its agenda.
"Every signal the board got from the Governor's office staff was, 'Slow down, don't hurt industry, don't get ahead of us on greenhouse gases'," Ms Witherspoon said. "They were ordering us to find ways to reduce costs and satisfy lobbyists." She added: "I'm happy to be going out with a roar and not a whimper. My objective is to make sure people understand what is going on so it can be straightened out."
Consumer groups and Democrat leaders have been quick to express their disappointment. "The Governor has made his name across the world as the jolly green governor, and now we have the regulators saying his inner circle has pressured them to go slow because the big industries don't want us to go too quickly," said Jamie Court, of the Foundation for Taxpayers and Consumer Rights.
The Democrat leader of California's State House, Fabian Nunez, also decried the loss of the two members of the board. "The only reason why they're gone is clear: the administration was tying their hands behind their backs in not allowing them to do the job that they needed to do."
Critics of the Governor say he is resisting imposing mandatory caps on industry in favour of market mechanisms to reduce emissions, in part because of his past dependence on them for campaign contributions.
So far, Mr Schwarzenegger has attempted to stay out of the fray. "I don't get caught up in this dialogue," he said.
Mr Sawyer has insisted he was fired because he defied the Governor's order to shelve the offending fourth measure, which will require the car industry to develop new types of paint that better absorb heat and therefore lessen the need for air conditioning. The three other measures involved reducing methane emissions from dumps, banning the sale of replacement refrigerant for car air conditioners, and requiring oil companies to produce petrol with a lower carbon dioxide component.
© 2007 Independent News and Media Limited