Seeking to play down the effects of global warming, Vice President Dick Cheney’s office pushed to delete from congressional testimony references about the consequences of climate change on public health, a former senior EPA official claimed Tuesday.
The official, Jason K. Burnett, said the White House was concerned that the proposed testimony last October by the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention might make it tougher to avoid regulating greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere.
Burnett’s assertion, which he made in a July 6 letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, conflicts with the White House explanation at the time that the deletions reflected concerns by the White House Office of Science and Technology over the accuracy of the science.
Boxer, in a news conference on Tuesday, went so far as to say White House press secretary Dana Perino had lied about why the White House had pushed for the deletions. That, in turn, prompted Perino to demand an apology from Boxer.
"I have never said such a thing about a fellow public servant, and I wouldn’t if I didn’t have all the facts," Perino said from Japan, where President Bush is attending a meeting of world economic leaders. "I think I deserve an apology."
Burnett, until last month a senior adviser on climate change at the Environmental Protection Agency, wrote that Cheney’s office was deeply involved in getting nearly half of the CDC’s original draft testimony removed.
"The Council on Environmental Quality and the office of the vice president were seeking deletions to the CDC testimony (concerning) … any discussions of the human health consequences of climate change," Burnett wrote.
At her news conference, Boxer maintained that the heavy editing of the testimony given by CDC Director Julie Gerberding last fall was the first part of "a master plan" aimed at "covering up the real dangers of global warming and hiding the facts from the public."
Burnett declined to comment beyond what he described in the letter and said he didn’t want to identify the people he had talked with in Cheney’s office or elsewhere at the White House. "I’m not interested in pointing fingers at individuals," he said.
White House deputy press secretary Tony Fratto said the White House stands by its explanation for the deletions, and noted that science adviser John Marburger had raised concerns.
Marburger issued a summary of his concerns at the time, but at a Senate hearing a few weeks later said he had not recommended deleting six of the 14 pages as was done.
Megan Mitchell, the vice president’s press secretary, dismissed the allegations by Burnett and said, "We don’t comment on internal deliberations."
Burnett, 31, a lifelong Democrat, resigned his post last month as associate deputy EPA administrator because of disagreements over the agency’s response to climate change.
He appeared to be an odd choice for the EPA post, which included liaison with the White House on climate issues. Currently a supporter of Barack Obama for president, he has contributed nearly $125,000 to Democratic candidates since 2000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Burnett, an economist who had written a number of papers on government regulation while at the Center for Regulatory Study, a joint effort by the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution, first joined the EPA in 2004. He resigned two years later because of objections to an EPA rule on soot.
He was asked to return in 2007 by EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson, who put him in charge of coordinating the agency’s response to a Supreme Court ruling on whether to regulate carbon dioxide emissions.
In his letter, Burnett describes concerns at the White House, including in Cheney’s office, about linking climate change directly to public health or damage to the environment.
Nowhere was that more apparent than in the heavy editing of the CDC testimony in October.
The White House, at the urging of Cheney’s office, "requested that I work with CDC to remove from the testimony any discussion of the human health consequences of climate change," Burnett wrote.
"CEQ contacted me to argue that I could best keep options open for the (EPA) administrator (on regulating carbon dioxide) if I would convince CDC to delete particular sections of their testimony," he wrote.
But he said he refused to press the CDC on the deletions because he believed the CDC’s draft testimony was "fundamentally accurate."
Burnett said Cheney’s office also objected in January to congressional testimony by Johnson that "greenhouse gas emissions harm the environment." An official in Cheney’s office "called to tell me that his office wanted the language changed" but that it was kept as it was.
Burnett also described in greater detail than previously reported the White House’s refusal in December to accept a draft EPA finding concluding that carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas, is endangering human health.
After he sent the e-mail with the draft finding attached, he said he received a telephone call from the White House asking that he "send a follow-up note saying that the e-mail had been sent in error."
"I explained that I could not do that because it was not true," Burnett wrote.
Boxer said the draft finding was now "in limbo" and not available for public review.
More than a year ago, the Supreme Court directed the EPA to determine whether carbon dioxide emissions endanger human health and welfare and, if so, begin to regulate it under the Clean Air Act. That process is not likely to continue until the next administration.