EPA cited for cutting corners on climate-health finding.


A pelican flies through the Elkhorn Slough Ecological Reserve, adjacent to the the Moss Landing power plant in Moss Landing, Calif. A government watchdog agency on Wednesday said the U.S. EPA's efforts to restrict greenhouse gas emissions had cut some procedural corners. Photo courtesy Dawn/flickr.

Sept. 29, 2011

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should have sought outside review of the science in its bid to regulate greenhouse gases, a federal auditor found. The EPA countered that the science - and the case for action - was solid.

By Douglas Fischer

The Daily Climate

The Obama Administration pushed back strongly Wednesday against a claim by a government watchdog that the agency should have sought outside scientific review on the human impacts of climate change. 

The report does not question or even address the science used or the conclusions reached. 
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

The Office of the Inspector General, investigating charges that the U.S Environmental Protection Agency cut corners in its bid to restrict greenhouse gas emissions, found that the rulemaking was sound but that the agency should have sought an independent peer-review of the science before declaring that greenhouse gases threaten human health and welfare.

Instead, the agency relied on assessments and summaries by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council, among others.

The White House, the EPA and others were defiant, noting the auditor never questioned the science underpinning the rulemaking. The EPA refused to take any corrective actions identified by the Inspector General. But the conclusion gave fresh ammunition to those skeptical of climate science and opposed to emissions restrictions.

"While it may be debatable what impact, if any, this had on EPA's finding, it is clear that EPA did not follow all the required steps," Inspector General Arthur Elkins Jr. said in a statement Wednesday.

The EPA met statutory requirements and "generally followed" requirements to support its proposed rules, the Inspector General's office concluded [pdf]. But it should have sought a separate scientific peer-review of its "highly influential" assessment of the science. 

The agency countered that it followed a "thorough and deliberate process" in developing the proposed rules, "including a careful review of a wide range of peer-reviewed science." Several independent scientific bodies have also examined that science, the agency added, and have upheld its validity.

"Most importantly, the report does not question or even address the science used or the conclusions reached," the EPA said in a statement.

A 'multi-layered pyramid'

That science remains solid, many climatologists and advocates of climate action said Wednesday.

That this whole history of scientific assessments is not sufficient basis for a finding by the EPA is mind-boggling. 
- Michael Mann, Penn State

Blogging on the issue, David Doniger, policy director of the climate and clean air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, described the EPA's findings as perched atop an "enormous, multi-layered pyramid" of scientific research developed over decades.

At the base, he wrote, are "tens of thousands" of peer-reviewed studies. That body of work has been synthesized and reviewed in separate assessments - the pyramid's next level - conducted by three highly regarded scientific organizations: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.S. Global Research Program, and the National Academy. The assessments involved thousands of scientists and were themselves peer-reviewed.

Finally, the EPA prepared a detailed summary of those assessments, which was subject to three different reviews by federal scientists, Doniger said. The agency's finding of harm relies on that detailed summary.

"No alternative theory - from sunspots, to clouds, to cosmic rays - has gone uninvestigated," Doniger said. "And every wild charge of scientific fraud - aka, Climategate - has been examined and refuted."

'Rushed, biased and flawed'

But Sen. James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who asked the Inspector General to investigate and who remains Congress' most vocal critic of climate regulations, said the report undermines the case for mitigation.

"The very foundation of President Obama's job-destroying agenda was rushed, biased and flawed," he said in a statement. "It calls the scientific integrity of the EPA's decision-making process into question."

For scientists, the continued need to review the science was dismaying. Thousands of pages have been written summarizing decades' worth of work on climate change, noted Pennsylvania State University climatologist Michael Mann. The National Academy, created during the Lincoln Administration, is Congress' advisor on scientific matters relevant to policymaking. It is widely seen as the gold standard.

"That this whole history of scientific assessments is not sufficient basis for a finding by the EPA is mind-boggling," Mann said in an interview. "If we're not going to defer to them, what process could be invented that would be more rigorous?"

DailyClimate.org is a foundation-funded news service covering climate change.


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