EPA: Video takedown order was about ethics, not content

Employees are not allowed to use their position and work at EPA to lend credibility to their personal opinions, officials say.

The Environmental Protection Agency's top lawyer says the agency is not censoring two of its California-based attorneys who posted a YouTube video criticizing the Obama administration's backing of a House-passed climate bill. But the two attorneys were asked to either take down the video or edit out references to their work with EPA because they violated government ethics standards.

"EPA has nearly 18,000 employees and all of them are free to -- and many do -- publicly express their views on issues of the day, including issues that are central to EPA's mission," according to a statement from EPA General Counsel Scott Fulton. "The only requirement is that employees adhere to the government's ethical regulations, which are in place to ensure that EPA and other agencies maintain the highest possible ethical standards at all times."

The issue is a 10-minute critique of cap-and-trade programs the administration has backed, the House has approved and the Senate is considering that was posted on YouTube by two attorneys in EPA's San Francisco office. In the video, Laurie Williams and Allan Zabel say cap-and-trade does not work and instead suggest phased-in increases in carbon prices for businesses and monthly rebates to consumers. Williams -- who was reached directly by phone Monday -- and Zabel did not comment.

In their video, Williams said they were "speaking out as parents, citizens, a married couple and attorneys." Zabel then says, "Our opinions are based on more than 20 years each working as attorneys at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the San Francisco regional office." He adds, "However, nothing in this video is intended to represent the views of EPA or the Obama administration."

The issue, according to EPA, is not the content of the video but whenever agency employees use their profession "to accent the credibility of your personal opinion," said EPA spokeswoman Adora Andy. "This is really not out of the ordinary at EPA." Andy said the agency has "no comments on their content."

Williams and Zabel have closely worked with their regional ethics office since last year on publicly stating their personal views "so everyone thought that we were on the same page," Andy said. Andy said that based on comments the two have made to the media, "They do understand this is not about the content."

An Oct. 31 op-ed posted by Williams and Zabel in the Washington Post that provided a link to the video caught the eye of regional ethics officials, one of whom sent an e-mail last Thursday instructing them to either take down the video or remove references to their EPA employment or face possible disciplinary action.

Williams and Zabel complied and took down the video Friday, though the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility has since reposted it. The two attorneys are considering whether to challenge the agency's order, said Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director. Doing so, he said, could create a precedent combining the growth of online communicating tools and whether government officials have the "ability to speak as private citizens about what they're doing on the job."

Coincidentally, EPA Friday sent the White House an "endangerment finding" citing climate change as a risk to public health and welfare, which the agency could use as justification to regulate U.S. greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act, particularly if Congress fails to pass a climate bill. EPA released a draft finding in April, which was followed by 60 days set aside for public comment. "This is the next step in the regulatory process," according to an EPA statement. "Nothing has been finalized at this point, and the April 2009 proposed findings are still just that -- proposed and being reviewed through the regulatory process."

EPA this year has already proposed greenhouse gas limits for new motor vehicles and indicated it plans to move forward with limits on large power plants and other industrial facilities. The House-passed climate bill would trump EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, while a bill approved last week by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee does not. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told the Senate panel recently that the agency would still need to limit some greenhouse gases that are not covered by legislation.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is expected to meet with relevant committee leaders Monday to talk about what might be doable this year and next on a climate and energy bill, a Senate Democratic leadership aide said.

The Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing Tuesday on a cap-and-trade bill. A hearing in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Tuesday on climate policy options has been postponed, as the Senate is not expected to vote Tuesday due to the memorial service at Fort Hood in Texas.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., and ranking member Richard Lugar, R-Ind., are meeting Tuesday with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in the Capitol to talk about steps heading into December's international climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Kerry and Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., might look to present a bipartisan framework for climate legislation by the end of those talks. On Monday, Graham said aides were meeting during this shortened legislative week.