EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson wants everyone to know that he's a just reasonable man, doing a resonable thing by standing in the way of states bracing for the localized impacts of global warming and trying to reduce the emissions feeding the problem. And mark his own words: by framing Friday's "final" decision on the California waiver as one that evaluated "the limits of California's authority to regulate GHG emissions from new motor vehicles, not the particular regulatory provisions California wishes to enforce," and trying to legally justify his previous invocation of the Bush administration's policy preference for a uniform and preemptive national approach, he's waded even more deeply into a debate about federalism.
But in getting there, Johnson, in addition to heavily relying on the first person, is trying to wrap himself in the cloak of legal text and congressional intent. He repeatedly insists that unprecedented spins on the waiver evaluation process, far from being a dismissal of California's demonstrated precedent and catalogued warming impacts, act "reasonably" and "give meaning" to Congress' text. In the process, Johnson is not merely trying to preempt criticism that he's acted audaciously against the states and essentially in line with the auto industry's flawed legal stance (he actually takes contorted pains to insist he's not significantly breaking with precedent or siding completely with the industry).
Instead, he's hoping that the courts will uphold his determination-- however novel it may be in the context of the waiver process set out by the Clean Air Act-- under the aegis that the law allows him to do this so long as he meets the burden of demonstrating "that he has made a reasonable and fair evaluation of the information in the record in coming to the waiver request decision."
Our own Tim Dowling took this anticipated rationale on back in December when the EPA first announced its decision...and promptly dissected its flaws and its likely failure to hold up in court. Seriously, go back and read Tim's post. Now.
At the end of the day, this debate largely comes down to whose evaluations and opinions should be given deference when it comes to going beyond federal standards in order to respond to local conditions-- California and other states (and EPA's technical and legal experts), or Stephen Johnson. For decades, the answer has been the former, and with little doubt about it. If the rationale Johnson has given is upheld (and it probably won't be), the federal government will have usurped that deference and replaced it with its own preemptive power to keep standing in the way.