WASHINGTON - President Bush's transportation secretary, Mary Peters, with White House approval, personally directed a lobbying campaign to urge governors and two dozen House members to block California's first-in-the-nation limits on greenhouse gases from cars and trucks, according to e-mails obtained by Congress.
The e-mails show Peters worked closely with the top opponents in Congress of California's emissions law and sought out governors from auto-producing states, who were seen as likely to oppose the state's request that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency allow the new rules to go into effect.
"The administration is trying to stack the deck against California's efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions," House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, wrote Monday to the White House. "It suggests that political considerations - not the merits of the issue - will determine how EPA acts."
Waxman released the e-mails, which are available on the committee's Web site, along with his letter to the White House. The documents show that the idea to launch the lobbying effort started with Peters.
The secretary "asked that we develop some ideas asap about facilitating a pushback from governors (esp. D's)" - Democrats - "and others opposed to piecemeal regulation of emissions, as per CA's waiver petition," Jeff Shane, the Transportation Department's undersecretary for policy, wrote to top staffers on May 22.
It was not an unbiased outreach effort: Peters targeted officials who agreed with her agency's opposition to California's landmark effort to regulate auto emissions.
"Are we making any headway in identifying sympathetic governors?" Shane wrote on May 23. "(Peters) asked me about them again this morning."
The release of the e-mails comes at an awkward time for the White House. President Bush was scheduled to meet Monday night with global leaders in New York to convince them he is serious about the United States' efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He has convened a meeting in Washington this week to talk about climate change with the world's 15 biggest emitters of greenhouse gases.
The Department of Transportation and the White House responded to Waxman's letter Monday with statements arguing that they did nothing wrong by urging lawmakers and governors to oppose California's efforts to curb emissions.
"Our efforts to inform elected officials about the petition before EPA were legal, appropriate and consistent with our long-held position on this issue," the Transportation Department said. "For over 30 years, the Department has supported a single, national fuel economy standard as part of our effort to save fuel, ensure safety, preserve the environment and protect the economy."
"With respect to California's request to be allowed to set its own standards, there are a wide variety of strongly held views across the country," said Kristen Hellmer, a spokeswoman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality. "Outreach by federal officials to state government counterparts and members of Congress on issues of major national policy is an appropriate and routine component of policy development."
But California officials, including one of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's top environmental aides, said the e-mails suggest the Bush administration is working behind the scenes to deny California's waiver. The EPA is expected to make its decision by December.
"We're deeply disappointed to hear of confirmed reports of back-room maneuvering to deny our request," said Mary Nichols, who chairs the state's Air Resources Board. "We will move ahead with our lawsuit if the EPA fails to act in the next few weeks."
California has taken the initial steps to sue the federal government if it turns down the state's request for a waiver under the federal Clean Air Act that would approve California's plan to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
The e-mails paint a picture of the administration working closely with Michigan's powerful congressional delegation, which strongly opposes California's new rules. U.S. automakers fear a huge drop in sales if California and 12 other states implement the new rules - which would cut emissions by 30 percent by 2016.
In one e-mail, Peters asks if she needs to call Rep. Joe Knollenberg, R-Mich., who was rallying opposition in Congress to California's proposal.
"Do I need to touch base with Knollenberg to coordinate our efforts?" she wrote in a June 7 e-mail to her deputy chief of staff, Simon Gros.
"His staff is also going to ping other members of the automotive caucus for us," Gros replied. "My staff this morning called just about every auto-friendly member of this issue."
Gros, in an interview with House investigators, said Peters personally called two to four governors to urge them to lobby the EPA. The Transportation Department would not identify the governors, but one cited in the e-mails was Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat.
The documents also reveal that Peters sought - and received - approval for her effort from the White House. Her executive assistant, Sandy Snyder, reported in a May 25 e-mail that the White House Council on Environmental Quality's chief of staff, Marty Hall, approved the idea.
Hall was "OK with (Peters) making calls," Snyder wrote.
Snyder added that Hall had spoken the day before with EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson - suggesting he may have known of the effort to lobby his agency. Johnson, at a Senate hearing in July, said he'd talked with Peters only about extending the comment period for the waiver request.
Waxman has suggested the actions could violate the Anti-Lobbying Act, which restricts the ability of federal employees or agencies to lobby. The law prohibits "grassroots lobbying" - efforts to get members of the public to lobby Congress.
The Transportation Department has said it did not engage in grassroots lobbying. But Thomas Susman, an attorney at Ropes & Gray in Washington and co-author of "The Lobbying Manual," said contacting governors - who are called "grasstops," in lobbying parlance - is usually considered grassroots lobbying.
"In my experience, there is no distinction in the statute or any interpretations between governors and the public," he said.
But Peters could have a legal out: The president, vice president and Cabinet members can't be barred from speaking out or instigating grassroots actions on issues of public concern, Susman said.
The law is enforced if a "substantial" amount of money - $50,000 - is spent on lobbying, and it's unlikely the Justice Department would go after members of the administration, he said.
Waxman said the debate over the legality of the actions misses the point. Peters could have submitted comments to the EPA, stating her views, he said.
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"Instead ... she apparently sought and received White House approval to use taxpayer funds to mount a lobbying campaign designed to inject political considerations into the decision," Waxman said.
Find the e-mails released by Rep. Henry Waxman
Status of law
What California wants: A waiver from federal law that would allow the state to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks.
Who decides: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
When: A decision is expected by December.
To comment: If you want to weigh in on the lobbying effort against California's greenhouse gas emissions law, call the U.S. Department of Transportation at (202) 366-4000 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call the White House's comment line at (202) 456-1111 or e-mail email@example.com.
Efforts to block California's climate rules
E-mails from top Transportation Department officials show that Secretary Mary Peters directed an effort to block California's first-in-the-nation regulations limiting greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks. Here are excerpts. Note: Secretary Peters is often referred to as "S1" in the e-mails:
"S1 asked that we develop some ideas asap about facilitating a pushback from governors (esp. D's) and others opposed to piecemeal regulation of emissions, as per CA's waiver petition. She has heard that such objections could have an important effect on the way Congress looks at the issue."
- e-mail from Jeff Shane, undersecretary of transportation for policy, to top staffers on May 22
"Marty Hall ... OK with S1 making calls, spoke with (EPA Administrator) Steve Johnson yesterday."
- e-mail from Sandy Snyder, executive assistant to Peters after getting approval from Marty Hall, chief of staff at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, May 25
"Tyler/Jenny mentioned yesterday that they thought the WH had approved calls to the Gov's on the issue I had discussed with Administrator Johnson. If so, I should get those worked in today or tomorrow."
- e-mail from Peters to her chief of staff, Robert Johnson, May 31
"Mary - I spoke with Tyler and Husein after your call with Gov. Granholm today. They said that you'd like to call some members of the MI delegation on the waiver issue."
- e-mail to Peters from Simon Gros, her deputy chief of staff, referencing a conversation with Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and potential calls to Michigan lawmakers, June 4
"S1 wanted me to touch base with you asap regarding the California Clean Air Act Waiver request. She would like us to contact Members (of Congress)."
- e-mail from Katherine Stusrud, policy assistant to Peters, to Gros, June 7
"Do I need to touch base with Knollenberg to coordinate our efforts?"
- e-mail from Peters to Gros, June 7, 2007, referring to Rep. Joe Knollenberg, R-Mich., who was rallying House members to oppose California's rules
"If you'd like but he is very much on point. His staff is also going to ping other members of the automotive caucus for us. My staff this morning called just about every auto-friendly member of this issue."
- e-mail reply from Gros to Peters, June 7
"Simon - we are a bit concerned about the conversation on this task ... appears to sound more like lobbying. So we want to be careful on what exactly we say. ... I have already made a bunch of calls ... looking back, I may have said more that I should have."
- e-mail from Heidah Shahmoradi, special assistant for governmental affairs at the DOT, to Gros, June 7
Source: House Oversight and Government Reform Committee
© 2007 San Francisco Chronicle