The Faux MB Environmental Scandal That Wasn't

Rather than being some shadowy "White House document" objecting to those overzealous greens at the EPA, it could have been written by almost anyone within the vast federal bureaucracy.
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Like most of the rest of the DC enviro set, I spent Tuesday morning waiting with baited breath for details of the compromise around the Waxman-Markey clean energy and climate bill to come over the transom. But then midway through the morning the blogs and newswires were suddenly atwitter with what appeared to be some major Obama environmental scandal. And I do mean a-Twitter, the latest obsession for Hollywood and Hollywood for Ugly People (D.C.) denizens alike.

Dow Jones, ABC News, and the Associated Press all went up with sensational items describing "a White House document" (specifically a memo from the Office of Management & Budget) that warned of dire economic consequences for millions of small businesses and others if EPA is allowed to proceed with its landmark "endangerment determination." It sounded oddly reminiscent of the many objections raised by the Bush administration and right-wing anti-regulatory groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- but more on that later. In any case, the scandal-hungry DC press corps took the GOP's bait and ran with it and the breaking news ripped across the internet.

(The endangerment finding, mandated by the watershed Massachusetts v. EPA global warming Supreme Court case that was actively ignored for years by the Bush administration, is currently in a 60-day public comment period. Hearings are taking place next week here in D.C. and Seattle. Click here to find out more about how you can get involved to support President Obama's clean energy agenda.)

The initial report was immediately seized upon and pushed by several GOP senators, most notably Big Oil and Dirty Coal-lovin' Senator John Barrasso (R-WY). It just so happened that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson was testifying about the EPA's budget (doubled thanks to President Obama!) before the Senate Environment Committee, which Barrasso sits on. He then literally waived the mysterious unsigned, undated nine-page memo around, calling it a "smoking gun" proving that EPA's decision was all politics. A somewhat bemused Jackson dismissed Barrasso's objections, much as she had when he raised similarly misguided objections during her confirmation hearing. Barrasso's tomfoolery at least earned him a trip to bloviate further along with wingnutopia's favorite Faux News personality and fellow denialist, Glenn Beck. Watch the senate smackdown (psyche!) here:

It struck many as odd that someone at a high-level within the administration would so publicly object (the Clean Air Act requires all documents and interagency correspondence on such issues to be made public) to one of the administration's signature policy initiatives. The inimitable Dave Roberts at Grist put his Spidey Sense to work and determined that all was not what it seemed when it came to this so-called "White House document." First of all, it emerged that it was not even a document authored by anyone within the White House or Office of Management and Budget. All relevant federal agencies are permitted to comment on pending regulations and OMB is required by law to report those comments back to the original agency, EPA in this case. So, rather than being some shadowy "White House document" objecting to those overzealous greens at EPA, it could have been written by almost any bureaucrat at almost any agency within the vast federal bureaucracy -- a bureaucracy still riddled with empty slots and holdovers from the Bush administration.

In an attempt to defuse the rapidly growing flap, OMB Director Peter Orszag even took to his blog in a post called "Clearing the Air" to clarify that the finding was indeed "rooted in both law and science" and that "press reports to the contrary are simply false."

As the sensational news continued to make the rounds, being picked up by the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, further details on the dubious document emerged. If the arguments in the memo sounded like vintage Bush arguments against action on warming, it's because they were written by none other than a vintage Bush holdover at the Small Business Administration named Shawne McGibbon.

The plot thickened further when it became known that McGibbon had previously been associated with the Mercatus Center, a well-respected but stridently anti-government regulation think tank. Oh, and it just so happens that said think tank has received extensive funding from corporate mega-polluter Koch Industries.

We're not sure whether the moral of this story centers around the current state of journalism ("AP Invents Obama Environmental Scandal" screamed Huffington Post) or the staying power of the Bush hangover. What we are sure about is that Lisa Jackson was pretty awesome on the Daily Show yesterday:

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