Sanders, Douglas rap EPA (Brattleboro Reformer & Bennington Banner)

By EVAN LEHMANN

WASHINGTON -- In a coordinated attack from the right and left, Vermont's GOP governor and its liberal independent senator accused the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Thursday, of obstructing state solutions to global warming.

Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., raked EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson with a series of barbed questions in a hearing about his rejection last month of California's two-year effort to impose strict fuel standards on new cars.

Sanders also joined Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., in co-sponsoring a bill by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., to override the EPA's ruling and let Vermont and 17 other states enforce tougher vehicle emission rules to curb global warming.

Johnson is under scrutiny from Congress, which is investigating whether he was pressured by the Bush administration to deny the request.

"Do you believe that global warming is a major crisis of our time?" Sanders asked Johnson in a testy exchange, used to cast doubt on the administration's commitment to addressing climate change. "If you can't do the right thing, at least get out of the way of California, Vermont and other states. If we do not move aggressively, this planet is in danger."

Sanders also pressed Johnson, a political appointee, on the extent he believes humans have contributed to global warming, and how aggressively it should be attacked.

"I believe that it is a serious problem," Johnson responded, declining to repeat Sanders' term, "major crisis."

He also said the buildup of greenhouse gases, which trap the sun's heat in the atmosphere, is "due largely to human activity."

However, a significant difference between Johnson and Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee revealed itself: the extent of danger that warming poses to humans.

While Sanders and other lawmakers warned of stronger storms, drought, fire, flooding and disease, Johnson said the "endangerment" posed to people and the environment by climate change is unknown. That was one reason California's request was denied, he said.

Vermont joined a handful of other states in a lawsuit against the EPA after its December decision, which Gov. Jim Douglas told the committee was "factually incorrect."

"Global warming could threaten our way of life and we have an obligation to do all we can to protect our environment for future generations," he said.

Douglas noted that warming could shorten the state's ski season and cause an incursion of non-native trees, thereby affecting tourism and maple syrup production.

"Climate change poses risks to Vermont's public health, welfare and economy," he added. "Admittedly, Vermont's adoption of California's standards alone will not solve the global warming problem, but it is a significant step in the right direction that Vermont and other states must be permitted to make."

Johnson sat before the committee for 2 1/2 hours, absorbing round after round of questions by lawmakers. And he didn't receive much support from Republican senators -- only one attended the hearing, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who once called global warming a "hoax." Inhofe's position hasn't changed.

"The science is not so," he said of the human impact. "We've gone over this and over this."

An emphasis for Sanders was the potential politicization of EPA's decision. He questioned Johnson on the timing of his announcement on Dec. 16 -- the same day President Bush signed an energy bill imposing higher fuel standards for new cars.

"It seems like a strange time to be making that announcement," Sanders said, echoing other administration critics by noting that EPA still hasn't revealed the scientific underpinnings of its decision. That report is expected by the end of February.

"I was not directed by anyone to make a decision," Johnson said at one point, explaining that his announcement was scheduled abruptly to offset leaks from within his agency that threatened to spread misinformation about the decision.

"It was not my idea of an ideal rollout plan at all," he added.

Sanders responded: "Mr. Johnson, do you understand that the American people might be somewhat dubious about your explanation?"

In a separate statement, Leahy said, "The Bush Administration has been AWOL or worse on air quality issues, and now they even want to undermine states like California and Vermont that are trying to pick up the slack. They won't lead and they won't follow, so this bill would force them at least to get out of the way and stop obstructing states like ours that are trying to lead on clean air policy."

The California rules that Vermont and other states want to adopt would require automakers to average 43.7 mpg by 2016 for passenger cars and some small SUVs and 26.6 mpg for larger light trucks.