President Bush's transportation secretary, Mary Peters, with White House approval, personally directed a lobbying campaign to urge governors and two dozen House members to block California's first-in-the-nation limits on greenhouse gases from cars and trucks, according to e-mails obtained by Congress.
The e-mails show Peters worked closely with the top opponents in Congress of California's emissions law and sought out governors from auto-producing states, who were seen as likely to oppose the state's request that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency allow the new rules to go into effect.
"The administration is trying to stack the deck against California's efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions," House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, wrote Monday to the White House. "It suggests that political considerations - not the merits of the issue - will determine how EPA acts."
Waxman released the e-mails, which are available on the committee's Web site, along with his letter to the White House. The documents show that the idea to launch the lobbying effort started with Peters.
The secretary "asked that we develop some ideas asap about facilitating a pushback from governors (esp. D's)" - Democrats - "and others opposed to piecemeal regulation of emissions, as per CA's waiver petition," Jeff Shane, the Transportation Department's undersecretary for policy, wrote to top staffers on May 22.
It was not an unbiased outreach effort: Peters targeted officials who agreed with her agency's opposition to California's landmark effort to regulate auto emissions.
"Are we making any headway in identifying sympathetic governors?" Shane wrote on May 23. "(Peters) asked me about them again this morning."
The release of the e-mails comes at an awkward time for the White House. President Bush was scheduled to meet Monday night with global leaders in New York to convince them he is serious about the United States' efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He has convened a meeting in Washington this week to talk about climate change with the world's 15 biggest emitters of greenhouse gases.
The Department of Transportation and the White House responded to Waxman's letter Monday with statements arguing that they did nothing wrong by urging lawmakers and governors to oppose California's efforts to curb emissions.
"Our efforts to inform elected officials about the petition before EPA were legal, appropriate and consistent with our long-held position on this issue," the Transportation Department said. "For over 30 years, the Department has supported a single, national fuel economy standard as part of our effort to save fuel, ensure safety, preserve the environment and protect the economy."
"With respect to California's request to be allowed to set its own standards, there are a wide variety of strongly held views across the country," said Kristen Hellmer, a spokeswoman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality. "Outreach by federal officials to state government counterparts and members of Congress on issues of major national policy is an appropriate and routine component of policy development."
But California officials, including one of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's top environmental aides, said the e-mails suggest the Bush administration is working behind the scenes to deny California's waiver. The EPA is expected to make its decision by December.
"We're deeply disappointed to hear of confirmed reports of back-room maneuvering to deny our request," said Mary Nichols, who chairs the state's Air Resources Board. "We will move ahead with our lawsuit if the EPA fails to act in the next few weeks."
California has taken the initial steps to sue the federal government if it turns down the state's request for a waiver under the federal Clean Air Act that would approve California's plan to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
The e-mails paint a picture of the administration working closely with Michigan's powerful congressional delegation, which strongly opposes California's new rules. U.S. automakers fear a huge drop in sales if California and 12 other states implement the new rules - which would cut emissions by 30 percent by 2016.
In one e-mail, Peters asks if she needs to call Rep. Joe Knollenberg, R-Mich., who was rallying opposition in Congress to California's proposal.
"Do I need to touch base with Knollenberg to coordinate our efforts?" she wrote in a June 7 e-mail to her deputy chief of staff, Simon Gros.
"His staff is also going to ping other members of the automotive caucus for us," Gros replied. "My staff this morning called just about every auto-friendly member of this issue."
Gros, in an interview with House investigators, said Peters personally called two to four governors to urge them to lobby the EPA. The Transportation Department would not identify the governors, but one cited in the e-mails was Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat.
The documents also reveal that Peters sought - and received - approval for her effort from the White House. Her executive assistant, Sandy Snyder, reported in a May 25 e-mail that the White House Council on Environmental Quality's chief of staff, Marty Hall, approved the idea.
Hall was "OK with (Peters) making calls," Snyder wrote.
Snyder added that Hall had spoken the day before with EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson - suggesting he may have known of the effort to lobby his agency. Johnson, at a Senate hearing in July, said he'd talked with Peters only about extending the comment period for the waiver request.
Waxman has suggested the actions could violate the Anti-Lobbying Act, which restricts the ability of federal employees or agencies to lobby. The law prohibits "grassroots lobbying" - efforts to get members of the public to lobby Congress.
The Transportation Department has said it did not engage in grassroots lobbying. But Thomas Susman, an attorney at Ropes & Gray in Washington and co-author of "The Lobbying Manual," said contacting governors - who are called "grasstops," in lobbying parlance - is usually considered grassroots lobbying.
"In my experience, there is no distinction in the statute or any interpretations between governors and the public," he said.
But Peters could have a legal out: The president, vice president and Cabinet members can't be barred from speaking out or instigating grassroots actions on issues of public concern, Susman said.
The law is enforced if a "substantial" amount of money - $50,000 - is spent on lobbying, and it's unlikely the Justice Department would go after members of the administration, he said.
Waxman said the debate over the legality of the actions misses the point. Peters could have submitted comments to the EPA, stating her views, he said.
"Instead ... she apparently sought and received White House approval to use taxpayer funds to mount a lobbying campaign designed to inject political considerations into the decision," Waxman said.