Did the White House just declare climate change war on itself?

A mysterious memo supposedly prepared by the Office of Management and Budget savagely attacks the EPA's finding that greenhouse gases are a pollutant.

Published May 12, 2009 9:06PM (EDT)

Barely 24 hours after I wrote that "questioning, at this point, the commitment of the Obama administration to tackling the challenge of climate change is just silly," the Wall Street Journal and Associated Press are flogging a story that seemingly raises severe questions about just how devoted the White House will be to the task of of regulating greenhouse gases.

At issue is what the Wall Street Journal is calling a "White House memo" prepared by the Office of Management and Budget that harshly criticizes the EPA's recent finding that greenhouse gases should be considered a pollutant regulated by the Clean Air Act.

The quote that everyone is highlighting could have come right out of the Bush administration's playbook:

Making the decision to regulate CO2 under the [Clean Air Act] for the first time is likely to have serious economic consequences for regulated entities throughout the U.S. economy, including small businesses and small communities.

A Republican senator sprung the memo on EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson during a hearing of the Environment and Public Works Committee Tuesday morning, calling it a "smoking gun."

The Journal further observes:

The OMB document also warns of a cascade of unintended regulatory consequences, advice the Department of Interior may have used last week in its decision not to revoke a Bush administration rule that prevents using the Endangered Species Act to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from facilities such as power plants and refineries.

So what's going on here? Is the Obama administration already at war with itself? And why did the Wall Street Journal make the memo the lead story on its home page all day, while the New York Times relegated the news to a blog posting?

The answer to the last question might lie in the Times' characterization of the memo as "undated and unsigned" rather than prepared by the "White House." David Roberts, at Grist, has much, much more:

Republicans trumpeted this as official OMB -- i.e., "Obama White House" -- feedback.

But it's not. When the EPA released its draft finding, the OMB undertook a standard process called Interagency Review. It sent the finding to every government department and agency (dozens), asking for feedback. It then collected all the comments it received and submitted them to the EPA, as required by law.

So the comments in the memo (and the other memos submitted today) could have come from anywhere within the federal bureaucracy.... Which means these comments could have come from just about any careerist in any of these agencies. In some cases -- and having reviewed some of the crazy, old-school denier stuff in these memos, I strongly suspect this is true -- career bureaucrats at the agency/dept. could have just dug up comments from the Bush administration era and forwarded them along.

I am sure we will learn more about this memo in the days to come, and I'm betting we hear some strong pushback from the Obama administration. If not, well, that'll be news in and of itself. In the meantime, the one thing we know for sure is that the Wall Street Journal's front-page reporting is beginning to sound a lot more like its editorial opinion pages than it ever did before, pre-Rupert Murdoch. And that is a pity.

UPDATE: That didn't take long! Politico's Ben Smith links to OMB director Peter Orszag's rebuttal:

...Any reports suggesting that OMB was opposed to the finding are unfounded.

The quotations circulating in the press are from a document in which OMB simply collated and collected disparate comments from various agencies during the inter-agency review process of the proposed finding....

Perhaps more importantly, OMB concluded review of the preliminary finding several weeks ago, which then allowed EPA to move forward with the proposed finding. As I wrote on this blog on April 17, the "proposed finding is carefully rooted in both law and science." ...

The bottom line is that OMB would have not concluded review, which allows the finding to move forward, if we had concerns about whether EPA's finding was consistent with either the law or the underlying science. The press reports to the contrary are simply false.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

MORE FROM Andrew Leonard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Environment Global Warming Globalization How The World Works