It’s more than a little ironic that about the same time Senate Democrats abandoned a seven-year effort to pass a climate bill centered on a cap-and-trade system, the EPA backed off censoring two of its attorneys who had been highly critical of the approach.

Laurie Williams and Allan Zabel, two California enforcement attorneys in EPA’s Region IX and a married couple, had been campaigning for months — and very publicly, with a website and YouTube video – to persuade the American public to oppose cap-and-trade as a tool to reduce carbon emissions. The couple has argued that a cap-and-trade system with carbon offsets would do little to cut emissions. They propose instead a carbon fee system with rebates that would go to consumers to better afford alternative energy.

On their website and on the video, the couple makes it clear that they’re speaking as individuals and not as government representatives. But EPA top administrators weren’t thrilled that two of its attorneys were so publicly opposed to one of President Obama’s signature legislative efforts.

According to the watchdog group the Government Accountability Project, which represents Williams and Zabel, the two attorneys last November had been ordered by EPA to take down the YouTube video. “Besides threatening discipline, EPA imposed prior restraint by ordering them to submit future public communications for advance review,” GAP said in a statement on July 28.

And who came to the couple’s rescue? The White House, no less.

White House Ethics Counsel Norm Eisen, after an appeal by Williams and Zabel to intervene, looked into the matter and then persuaded the Office of Government Ethics to issue new guidelines against using ethics rules to gag whistleblowers’ noncommercial speech.

Says GAP: “After 22 years of intransigence, the EPA also committed to implement and obey the federal anti-gag statute — requiring agencies to include a qualifier to nondisclosure policies. The qualifier makes clear that free speech rights outlined by the Whistleblower Protection Act supersede any restrictions elsewhere in the policy.”

Freed from any gag order, Williams and Zabel submitted a Whistleblower Disclosure to Congress on July 22, detailing their opposition to greenhouse gas offsets as part of a climate bill.

Of course, that’s great news for Williams and Zabel, and a win for free speech. But to what end? Debates on climate and energy are perhaps more open now, but inaction and logjam still rule the day in Washington … and Williams’ and Zabel’s views might just be some of countless nails in the coffin of cap-and-trade, a political tough sell for sure.