EPA staffers go to Hill over global warming

Dissatisfied with the agency's greenhouse-gas emissions program, labor leaders are pleading for congressional intervention.

This week, labor leaders representing more than 10,000 Environmental Protection Agency scientists, engineers, and staff have asked Congress to hold aggressive oversight hearings on the agency's own greenhouse-gas emissions programs.

Under the Bush administration's voluntary approach, the labor leaders' petition says, the agency isn't doing enough to encourage the use of current technology to control carbon-dioxide emissions, the leading cause of human-induced climate change. In fact, the time for a voluntary program is over, the leaders say.

"The science is too clear and the consequences are too grave" to continue down the path the administration is following, says William Hirzy, an EPA senior scientist currently on a teaching assignment at American University. He's vice president of the National Treasury Employees Union chapter that represents employees at EPA headquarters in Washington.

The labor leaders, who are presidents of the EPA's 22 union locals, also called on lawmakers to ensure that agency experts are allowed to speak freely and openly about global warming with the public and Congress "without fear of reprisal."

In addition, the petition, which was sent to two key Capitol Hill committees, asks lawmakers to "support a vigorous program of enforcement and reduction in GHG [greenhouse-gas] emissions."

The administration has held that regulating CO2 is outside the agency's purview. Indeed, this week, the US Supreme Court heard arguments in a suit against the EPA over this issue. Deputy Solicitor General Gregory Garre argued that Congress never gave the EPA authority to regulate CO2. Even if the agency had the authority, he continued, "now is not the time to exercise such authority, in light of the substantial scientific uncertainty surrounding global climate change and the ongoing studies to address those uncertainties."

The petition's drafters say they originally planned to release the document in a few weeks, on the eve of the new, Democratically led Congress. But they opted to send the document to the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee this week as the high court heard oral arguments on the issue.

This is not the first time EPA's unions have flagged issues that some members reportedly have difficulty raising through bureaucratic channels. And it's unclear how deep the petition's sentiments run through the agency's rank and file. "We can't say it's 100 percent," Dr. Hirzy acknowledges.

Still, the unions represent the only safe avenue for career scientists and engineers to speak out, according to Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. In 2005, he explains, the US Supreme Court held that public employees couldn't rely on the First Amendment to shield them from retaliation if they blew the whistle on unethical or illegal activities on the job.

The petition comes at a time when speculation is rising in Washington that President Bush may substantially modify his approach to carbon emissions. In press interviews, some administration officials have hinted that Mr. Bush is preparing to unveil new energy and climate policies, perhaps in his State of the Union message early next year.

Some analysts say that the White House has polled energy companies, asking: What's your bottom line on possible regulations? In October, the head of Shell Oil, speaking at the National Press Club, said that a patchwork of state rules would be too hard to deal with, and that a national program is needed.

"You've got different dynamics at play," and the logical place to look for a new position would be the State of the Union address, says John Stanton, vice president of the National Environmental Trust.

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