NOVEMBER 9, 2009, 3:41 PM
By LESLIE KAUFMAN AND JOHN M. BRODER, New York Times
The Environmental Protection Agency has directed two agency lawyers to make changes in a video they posted on YouTube that is critical of the Obama administration’s climate policy. But the original video has already been reposted several times by other YouTube users.
The E.P.A., citing federal policies, told the two officials, Laurie Williams and Allan Zabel, a husband-and-wife team of lawyers based in San Francisco, that they could mention their E.P.A. affiliation only once and must remove footage of the agency’s office in San Francisco. Although the video provided a disclaimer saying that the couple were speaking only for themselves, it mentioned their affiliation with the agency more than once.
They have been told that if they do not edit the video to comply with the policy, they will face possible disciplinary action.
The video, titled “The Huge Mistake,” was produced and posted in September, but the agency did not issue its warning until The Washington Post published a widely cited opinion article by the couple on Oct. 31 raising concerns, echoing those in the video, about cap-and-trade legislation that the Obama administration supports.
Ms. Williams and Mr. Zabel say that global warming requires an urgent response, but assert that cap and trade, in which the government sets a declining ceiling on emissions of greenhouse gases and then allows companies to trade permits to meet it, can be easily gamed by industry and fail to reduce global warming pollution. They began making statements of this sort more than a year ago.
Their critique has been embraced by James E. Hansen, the NASA climate scientist who was pressed in 2006 to rein in his comments about global warming by political appointees under President George W. Bush. Like the couple, Dr. Hansen favors collecting rising fees on greenhouse emissions and returning the revenue to citizens to limit the impact of higher energy prices.
On Thursday, Mr. Zabel said, E.P.A. regional ethics officers called him in for a formal meeting to express concern about the video and demanded that it be pulled down by the following day. Ms. Williams was traveling and did not participate in the meeting, she said.
E.P.A. officials said the agency did not object to the content of the Web video or the op-ed piece and did not challenge the couple’s right to express their opinions.
“E.P.A. 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 E.P.A.’s mission,” Scott Fulton, the agency’s general counsel, said in a statement. “The only requirement is that employees adhere to the government’s ethical regulations, which are in place to ensure that E.P.A. and other agencies maintain the highest possible ethical standards at all times.”
Mr. Williams and Ms. Zabel say they quickly removed the video from their personal Web site and from their YouTube account. However, they said, other people had already copied the video and put it up on separate YouTube accounts and it is still easily found.
In an interview Monday, Ms. Williams described herself as being “very anxious” about how her superiors might react to the video’s still being out there. She said she and her husband had informed the agency about the other postings of the video as soon as they knew of them and were doing everything they could to comply with the directive.
A watchdog group, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), is accusing the E.P.A. of muzzling two career employees. “E.P.A. is abusing ethics rules to gag two conscientious employees who have every right to speak out as citizens,” said the group’s executive director, Jeff Ruch. The group has posted the original video and script at its own Web site.
An E.P.A. spokeswoman said that the agency was satisfied with the couple’s efforts to limit distribution of the video and was not currently considering any punishment. She said that Mr. Zabel and Ms. Williams had been scrupulous in the past about pre-clearing publications with agency officials.