WASHINGTON (AP) -- A federal appeals court refused Thursday to make a resistant Bush administration speed up a decision on whether greenhouse gases and global warming threaten public health and welfare.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia denied a petition by 17 states and several environmental groups asking it to order the Environmental Protection Agency to make that determination within 60 days.
Such a finding is a necessary first step to regulating carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from motor vehicle tailpipes and the smokestacks of refineries, power plants and factories. The Supreme Court more than a year ago ruled that the EPA has the authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, a step President Bush has repeatedly refused to take.
Instead, EPA is expected to issue a proposal in coming weeks that seeks public comment on a range of options the agency could take to control greenhouse gases under current law. It will take no position on whether carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases should be regulated, according to a draft obtained by The Associated Press.
"We are pleased the Circuit court recognized the agency's approach," said Timothy Lyons, deputy press secretary for EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson. "The advanced notice for proposed rulemaking ... will allow for public input on the broad range of fundamental issues involved in regulating greenhouse gases."
That proposal is expected to be a step backward from a finding the agency sent via e-mail to the White House last December concluding that greenhouse gases do endanger public health and welfare, and should be controlled.
The e-mail, according to an EPA official who spoke under the condition of anonymity, was never opened by the White House. Several agency officials have also said that the White House asked for the e-mail to be recalled.
"The final decision was that the ramifications of that finding were so profound for the nation, that this administration didn't want to have to confront the inevitable," said Jason Burnett, an EPA associate deputy administrator who resigned this month over the agency's lack of response to Supreme Court decision in April 2007.
"The decision was to let the next administration set the policy for how the Clean Air Act should be applied to greenhouse gases," Burnett said in an interview Thursday.
The latest proposal due out from EPA is undergoing more modifications from the White House, sources familiar with the negotiations said.
"The big issue now is the extent to which the administration is making last-minute wholesale changes, and that was going on over the weekend," said William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies.
A draft copy of the rule suggests that fuel economy standards more stringent than those the Bush administration is currently proposing would not only cut back on greenhouse gases but would also save consumers money.
"The White House is basically ordering EPA to do what they want them to do," said Dan Becker, a consultant to environmental groups. "They are going to couch the langauge in a way that gives the administration an out. They are already not reading their e-mails."
In the appeals court's ruling Thursday, Judge David S. Tatel wrote that the court shouldn't immediately force the EPA's hand. He said the Supreme Court didn't give the agency a deadline and that the issue is too complex and controversial to be sorted out in only a year.
But the judge also questioned the agency's delays.
"EPA has postponed -- now indefinitely -- deciding whether greenhouse gas emissions endanger public health and welfare, calling into question whether the agency's desire to promulgate regulations ... is simply an excuse to avoid complying with the statute," Tatel wrote.
Environmentalists said the court's decision definitively punts any decision on regulating greenhouse gases to the next administration.
"All this does is further underscore that the Bush administration has not done anything, will not do anything, and has stood in the way of anyone else doing anything," said David Bookbinder, chief climate counsel for the Sierra Club.