July 8, 2008 -- President Bush is in Japan pledging to do his best to put the U.S. on a long-term path to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050, but back in Washington a former Environmental Protection Agency official said staffers at the White House pressured him last year to retract an official finding, which was never made public, that those emissions "may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public welfare."
When he refused, former EPA official James Burnett maintains the White House simply didn't open his e-mail, because opening the e-mail would have made the finding official.
EPA Spokesperson Jonathan Shradar did not dispute Burnett's claims, but said the e-mail Burnett sent was a draft and was specifically about the effects of greenhouse gases as they had to do with legislation Congress was considering to regulate fuel economy.
Burnett, a Democratic party donor, also described being asked by Vice President Dick Cheney's office to heavily edit testimony that the director of the Centers for Disease Control, Julie Gerberding, gave before Congress last October.
Burnett said he refused, but the testimony was ultimately changed.
Boxer Claims Cover-Up
"This is the story of a White House and vice president's office that work together to squelch information, to squash it, to stop it from getting to the public so that there would be no information out there, so that there wouldn't be a push for them to act," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who appeared with Burnett at a press conference on Capitol Hill Tuesday. Boxer accused White House Press Secretary Dana Perino of lying about the redaction of Gerberding's testimony and engaging in a cover-up.
A White House spokesman denied there is a cover-up, pointing to a press release another lawmaker issued regarding the unreleased finding.
Boxer demanded that EPA Administrator Steve Johnson either locate the e-mailed finding Burnett sent to the White House or resign.
Boxer said the e-mail Burnett sent with the finding on the harmful effects of global warming is "lost in cyberspace" and needs to be "brought back down to earth."
She also called on Johnson to release all the relevant documents Burnett used to help draft the finding.
But the release of an expanded version of Burnett's finding could be in the works, eight months after he submitted his report.
Shradar said EPA will announce the first steps in the formulation of a new policy for "complete regulation of carbon in this country." That announcement -- a start to the long process of an EPA rule-making -- could come as soon as Friday and might include a government finding, for the first time, that greenhouse gases do harm the public.
"We took a step back to fully evaluate all sources of carbon, not just one single industry," Shradar said.
But that process has been too slow for some states, like Boxer's California, which has sparred with the Bush administration over taking unilateral action to curb carbon emissions.
Burnett Says Staffers Asked Him Not to Send E-mail
Burnett served as associate deputy administrator of the EPA from June 2007 until last month, his second stint at the agency.
He said his job was to coordinate the EPA response to a Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, in which the court decided in April 2007 that the EPA does have the authority and responsibility under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases if they are found to endanger the public.
He gathered information from a variety of EPA offices and formulated an official finding that greenhouse gases likely endanger the public.
But shortly after sending the e-mail, Burnett said White House staffers called the EPA asking him not to send the e-mail. After being told the e-mail had already been sent, Burnett said the staffers asked him to "send a follow-up note saying that the e-mail had been sent in error. I explained that I could not do this because it was not true," he said in the letter to Boxer, who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Burnett said in the letter that he was told his finding on the health effects of greenhouse gases was not needed because the bill Congress was considering to regulate fuel economy standards would nullify the need for the EPA officially determining that greenhouse gases have harmful effects.
But Burnett said the fuel economy law passed by Congress has nothing to do with the EPA finding.
"Well, the energy bill did not change the science, and it did not change the law," he said. "EPA still has a responsibility to respond to the Supreme Court."
Burnett would not name the officials at the White House because he said he did not feel it would be constructive to "point the finger" at specific people. He does not have a copy of the finding or the e-mail that he sent to the White House.
And he may not be an entirely objective whistleblower. He has given the max in contributions to Sen. Barack Obama and $28,500 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee since April.
"I'm not interested in pointing fingers at individuals," Burnett said. "I think it's important that we turn from a… from a debate over the nature of the problem to start working on some of the solutions. And there are a number of steps that can be taken under the existing law, the Clean Air Act.
"This administration has decided to leave those important policy questions to the next administration, and I'm interested in helping… helping inform the next administration so they can make the best decision given that law while still recognizing that Congress could pass a new, better law that would more appropriately deal with this problem."
He was defended on this point by Boxer.
"It's really a sad day when there's a requirement that you be a Republican to work in the EPA on an environmental issue or you have to be a Democrat to do it. That is really sad. And I think the important thing for us -- we're all Americans, and we all breathe the same air, regardless of our party," Boxer said.
CDC Head's Testimony Redacted
CDC head Gerberding gave testimony in October 2007 that was shown to have been heavily redacted by the White House.
Burnett said in the letter to Boxer that he was asked by Cheney's office to aid in that redaction in order to "keep options open for the [EPA] Administrator," but he refused because, "I only worked to keep options open that were consistent with relevant scientific information."
But the testimony was ultimately redacted, presumably by someone else at the EPA, CDC or in Cheney's office.
"We don't comment on internal deliberations," said Megan Mitchell, Cheney's spokesperson, when asked today about Burnett's characterization of the editing of Gerberding's testimony.
Boxer read from Burnett's letter and compared his assertion with a statement by White House Secretary Dana Perino the day after Gerberding's testimony that the redacted portions did not necessarily comport with known science.
"That was a lie," Boxer said today.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto disputed that, saying, "The allegation that Dana lied is factually incorrect. Sen. Boxer is wrong and she must have missed [White House Science Adviser] Dr. Marburger who put out a public statement point-by-point with his concerns with testimony… We stand 100 percent behind what Dana said," said Stanzel.
Marburger told Boxer's committee last November that he had some concerns with Gerberding's testimony and recommended changes, but did not suggest that full pages be redacted from it.
After the press conference, Boxer was asked about the the president's pledge in Japan. She said it was predicated on too many "buts."
"But, but, but, but," Boxer said. "But if the Chinese do this. But if the Indians do that. It's more of the same and it's doing nothing."
ABC News' Jen Duck contributed to this report.