WASHINGTON – Vice President Dick Cheney's office pushed for major deletions in congressional testimony on the public health consequences of climate change, fearing the presentation by a leading health official might make it harder to avoid regulating greenhouse gases, a former EPA officials maintains.
When six pages were cut from testimony on climate change and public health by the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last October, the White House insisted the changes were made because of reservations raised by White House advisers about the accuracy of the science.
But Jason K. Burnett, until last month the senior adviser on climate change to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen Johnson, says that Cheney's office was deeply involved in getting nearly half of the CDC's original draft testimony removed.
"The Council on Environmental Quality and the office of the vice president were seeking deletions to the CDC testimony (concerning) ... any discussions of the human health consequences of climate change," Burnett has told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
The three-page letter, a response to an inquiry by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the panel's chairwoman, was first obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press.
At a news conference, Boxer said the heavy editing of the CDC testimony last October was "not haphazard" but part of broader efforts to downplay the consequences of climate change. She said the goal was to assure EPA's response to a Supreme Court directive to examine whether to regulate carbon dioxide "would be as weak as possible."
Megan Mitchell, the vice president's press secretary, dismissed the allegations by Burnett, whom she referred to simply as "that Democrat."
"We don't comment on internal deliberations," said Mitchell.
Burnett, 31, a lifelong Democrat who has contributed nearly $125,000 to Democratic candidates, resigned his post last month as associate deputy EPA administrator because of disagreements over the agency's response to climate change.
In his letter he describes deep concerns at the White House, including in Cheney's office, about linking climate change directly to public health or damage to the environment. Scientists believe manmade pollution is warming the earth and if the process is not reversed it will cause significant climate changes that pose broad public health problems from increases in disease to more injuries from severe weather.
Senate and House committees have been trying for months to get e-mail exchanges and other documents to determine the extent of political influence on government scientists, but have been rebuffed.
The letter by Burnett for the first time suggests that Cheney's office was deeply involved in downplaying the impacts of climate change as related to public health and welfare, Senate investigators believe.
Cheney's office also objected last January over congressional testimony by Administrator Johnson that "greenhouse gas emissions harm the environment."
An official in Cheney's office "called to tell me that his office wanted the language changed" with references to climate change harming the environment deleted, Burnett said. Nevertheless, the phrase was left in Johnson's testimony.
Burnett at the news conference declined to elaborate, or provide the names of the official who had contacted him.
Cheney's office and the White House Council on Environmental Quality worried that if key health officials provided detailed testimony about global warming's consequences on public health or the environment, it could make it more difficult to avoid regulating carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, Burnett believes.
The EPA currently is examining whether carbon dioxide, a leading greenhouse gas, poses a danger to public health and welfare. The Supreme Court has said if it does, it must be regulated under the Clean Air Act.
Nowhere were these White House concerns more apparent than when CDC Director Julie Gerberding, the head of the government's premier public health watchdog, testified about climate change and public health before Boxer's committee last October. The White House deleted six of the original 14 pages of Gerberding's testimony, including a list of likely public health impacts of global warming.
The White House, at the urging of Cheney's office, "requested that I work with CDC to remove from the testimony any discussion of the human health consequences of climate change," wrote Burnett.
"CEQ contacted me to argue that I could best keep options open for the (EPA) administrator (on regulating carbon dioxide) if I would convince CDC to delete particular sections of their testimony," Burnett said in the letter to Boxer.
But he said he refused to press CDC on the deletions because he believed the CDC's draft testimony was "fundamentally accurate."
Burnett, in a telephone interview, said he opposed making the extensive deletions because "it was the right thing to do." He declined to elaborate about White House involvement beyond his July 6 letter to Boxer.
As a Democrat, Burnett, seems to have been an odd choice as a senior policy adviser and key liaison with the White House in Bush administration's EPA.
Over the last eight years, he has contributed nearly $125,000 to various Democratic politicians, starting with Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Government. He supports Democrat Barack Obama for president.