Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's plan to cut greenhouse gases appears headed for trouble with the Bush administration, with one Cabinet secretary lobbying against allowing states to enact tougher pollution limits and the nation's environmental chief giving no indication that he likes the idea, either.
At a hearing of the Senate environment committee Thursday, Stephen L. Johnson, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, clashed with Democrats who berated him for taking nearly two years to rule on a waiver to allow California, Florida and 11 other states to enact new limits on greenhouse gas emissions to curb global warming.
Johnson said the EPA was moving as fast as possible and he would rule by late December.
Without the EPA waiver, Crist can't require automakers to sell cleaner-burning vehicles in Florida, a key part of his plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions by nearly one-third by 2025.
He and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a fellow Republican with the same emissions plan, say they'll sue the EPA if they don't get it.
Johnson gave no sense he leaning toward granting it, telling the committee the EPA was working on its own plan to curb automobile emissions beginning in 2010.
Committee chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said she believed political forces within the Bush administration - which has resisted addressing global warming - ultimately will push Johnson to deny it. "I want to send a message out there to the governors who are considering suing to go ahead and do it," Boxer told Johnson. "You have said nothing that encourages me."
She cited e-mails showing the office of Transportation Secretary Mary E. Rogers has lobbied members of Congress to oppose the waiver request.
According to a copy of a script Rogers' office sent DOT officials, members were warned the waiver could lead to "a patchwork of vehicle emissions regulations" that could hurt the car and light truck industry.
Johnson told Boxer he would rule independently. "The responsibility solely lies with me ... to make the decision and I take the responsibility very seriously."
Only one committee Republican, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who denies the existence of global warming, attended. He said the waiver is unnecessary, and complimented Johnson.
Under the Clean Air Act, California can seek an EPA waiver to enact tighter pollution limits if it can show a compelling need. If granted, other states can follow. Aside from cutting power plant emissions and other measures, Crist has told automakers that beginning with the 2009 model year, cars sold in Florida must emit 25 percent less greenhouse gases and sport utility vehicles must emit 18 percent less.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., recently filed a bill that would force the EPA to rule on the waiver by Sept. 30. He noted that 44 percent of the U.S. population lives in the 13 states seeking the change.
"This is those states wanting to take control of their destiny," Nelson told the committee Thursday.
Florida's other senator, Republican Mel Martinez, did not attend, though Crist's office said he did receive a letter seeking Congress' help.
The committee is expected to approve Nelson's bill Tuesday, with a full Senate vote possible late next week. It then would go to the House.
"Allowing states to take the necessary steps to reduce greenhouse gases ... is a critical component to any successful national strategy on climate change," Crist wrote in a letter to the committee. "Florida anxiously awaits."