A Study in Contrasting Coverage: Dailies Differ Widely on EPA’s California Ruling

When the Environmental Protection Agency rejected California’s request for authority to set its own regulations to limit greenhouse gases from vehicles in late December, it was predictably big news there and in 16 other states that had indicated a desire to opt into California’s rules, as the Clean Air Act allows.

The Los Angeles Times, for instance, published a 1,200-word article that reported the EPA rejection had “infuriated public officials and environmentalists from Washington to Sacramento.” Likewise, The Oregonian, in a staff-written story including material from the Associated Press, focused on the EPA action as a setback to its state’s initiatives to fight global warming.

The much-awaited December 19 decision by EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson, announced in a nighttime telephone news conference, was unquestionably a major development in the escalating national debate on what to do about manmade climate change. Johnson said a new energy bill, signed by President Bush the same day and including tougher fuel economy standards for vehicles, was a better way to reduce tailpipe greenhouse emissions.

Johnson’s decision is the only one in the agency’s 37-year history rejecting a bid by California to set its own rules under the Air Act. It dealt a blow to an initiative with potential ramifications beyond the 17 states poised to implement California’s vehicle rules, given the collective size of their auto markets. And it capped a year brimming with climate developments, including a string of major reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Nobel Peace Prizes, and the UN’s December conference in Bali, Indonesia.

A review of coverage of EPA’s California decision in eight daily newspapers shows widely varying approaches to covering – or not covering – what many see as one of the Bush administration’s most important regulatory decisions on climate change.

The eight were the Washington Post and Washington Times; the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press, based in the U.S. auto industry’s headquarters; the Dallas Morning News and Houston Chronicle, serving the two largest metro areas in oil-centric Texas; and a pair of mid-size regional newspapers in the Midwest, the Indianapolis Star and Des Moines Register.

The Washington Post‘s 1,000-word front page story, written by staff reporter Juliet Eilperin with contributions from two staff researchers, emphasized the unusual nature of Johnson’s action.

The lead reported that Johnson had “overrul(ed) the unanimous recommendation of the agency’s legal and technical staffs.”

Eilperin elaborated on the point later in the article:

“In a PowerPoint presentation prepared for the administrator, aides wrote that if Johnson denied the waiver and California sued, ‘EPA likely to lose suit.’

“If he allowed California to proceed and automakers sued, the staff wrote, ‘EPA is almost certain to win.’”

Eilperin further noted that “the Detroit News reported that chief executives of Ford and Chrysler met with Vice President Cheney (in November) to discuss the issue.”

In a later editorial, the Post blasted the administration’s denial of California’s request as “climate change malpractice.” The piece pointed out an ironic bit of governmental context for the decision – the State Department’s having earlier pointed to the pending California vehicle regulations as one of the “key activities conducted by the U.S.” to battle global warming.

A search of the Washington Times’ archives revealed no next-day coverage of the EPA decision on the California petition. On December 21, the newspaper devoted three paragraphs at the bottom of an article about Bush’s press conference on December 20 to his defense of the EPA action and his continuing advocacy of nuclear energy as a way to reduce greenhouse emissions.

The Times had run a staff-written story on a related development just five days before the action on the California rules:

“The District (of Columbia) has joined California and four other states in petitioning the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to clamp down on greenhouse-gas emissions from commercial aircraft.”

The Detroit News devoted three articles on December 20 to the previous day’s news of Bush’s signing of the bill with tougher vehicle standards, with ample attention to the implications for the auto industry.

One of those articles reported the basics of the “historic increase in fuel efficiency requirements”; a second explained how “escalating gas prices and a Democratic takeover of Congress” helped lead to the law; and a third listed comments from supporters and critics of the bill, including one who decried “global warming hysteria.”

The News also published a 700-word article the same day on EPA’s rejection of California’s regulatory petition. Written by staff reporter David Shepardson, whose byline also appeared on two of the stories on the energy bill, it took due note of the auto-industry angle, though in a somewhat understated way.

The story’s third paragraph stated: “The decision is a victory of sorts for auto makers, who opposed state-by-state regulations.”

The article did not mention the newspaper’s earlier report of auto executives’ lobbying of Cheney, but it did report a warning to auto manufacturers by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger earlier in 2007:

“‘The fact of the matter is what I’m saying is, Arnold to Michigan: Get off your butt. Get off your butt and join us,’ he said at a speech at Georgetown University.”

Near the end of the article, Shepardson reported that “automakers say the California rules would create an unworkable patchwork of state-by-state auto fleets, which could require companies to eventually stop selling their largest vehicles.”

The News later editorialized in support of the automakers’ opposition to the California request, backing EPA’s contention that the new federal energy bill was a better approach.

Allowing states to have their own standard is “an untenable and unfair prospect,” the editorial asserted. “The automakers may be able to meet the federal numbers set by Congress, but it would be impossible for them to make different vehicles for each individual state.”

(Only California is allowed by the Clean Air Act to set vehicle emission standards stricter than those set by the EPA. Under the law, other states may choose the federal standards or standards “identical to standards for which California has been granted a waiver.”)

An article in the Free Press on December 20, by Washington-based staff reporter Justin Hyde, combined coverage of the EPA’s California decision with the news that the energy bill had been signed into law:

“While the auto industry lobbied hard against the California laws, the rejection by the Environmental Protection Agency drew a firestorm of criticism from environmental groups, lawmakers and state officials, all of whom vowed to fight the decision …. The waiver decision shattered what had been a rare day of bipartisan celebration in Washington. Following increasingly bitter fights between Democrats on Capitol Hill and the Bush administration, the Energy Independence and Security Act emerged as the most successful political compromise of the year, despite players who seemed bent on antagonizing each other at every turn.”

Both the Dallas Morning News and Houston Chronicle used wire stories to report the EPA rejection, perhaps reflecting both newspapers’ increasing emphasis on local news and less frequent staff reporting of national developments.

The News ran a story from McClatchy-Tribune, incorporating some information from McClatchy Newspapers and the AP. The Chronicle chose The New York Times‘ account of the EPA decision.

Both newspapers later editorialized against the decision by the administration of a President who was formerly Texas governor.

Declaring the move an “absurdity,” the News argued that “the decision to block California’s vehicle emissions standards is a new low in the federal government’s ongoing efforts to torpedo environmental regulations.”

The Chronicle‘s editorial similarly asserted: “States should be allowed to set tougher pollution standards than the federal government if their elected officials enact them. By blocking California, the EPA is continuing a Bush administration policy of dragging its feet on climate change initiatives and favoring voluntary compliance by industry over the rights of individual states.”

The Des Moines Register used a brief version of an AP story to report the EPA’s California decision. A search of the Indianapolis paper’s web archives turned up nothing on the EPA action. (It should be noted that some newspaper websites’ publicly searchable archives don’t include wire stories that those papers published in print editions or posted online.)

Bill Dawson

Bill Dawson is an independent journalist who edits Texas Climate News, an online magazine published by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Houston Advanced Research Center. He was previously environment writer for the Houston Chronicle. (E-mail: bill@yaleclimatemediaforum.org)
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