The EPA’s move against “secret science”


The EPA is fixin to make a policy they say will combat “secret science” and increase transparency in government. I’m here to tell you WTF is up with that, and why this is not about transparency. It’s about resisting efforts to combat climate change in policy.

Key context: The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to set standards for air quality, including limits on ground-level ozone. The Scientific Advisory Board of the EPA is charged with reviewing the best available science to figure out what the optimal standards should be. In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled that, when the EPA sets its limits on ground-level ozone, it cannot look at how much it will cost to enact the standard–they can only look at effects on public health. So the SAB is supposed to look at studies that tell us how many people die when you have this much ground-level ozone versus that much, and set a limit that produces the optimal number of deaths. The lower the limit, the more it costs industry to comply. A difference in even 5 ppb jacks compliance costs up a ton. So you can see why industry would be heavily invested in questioning the scientific studies the SAB uses to set the limit.

Here’s where it gets interesting: The Supreme Court also ruled that the EPA is required to regulate climate-changing greenhouse gases as air pollution under the Clean Air Act. And they can’t look at how much it costs to enact those standards–only the effects on public health. OH SHIT OK hold on am I saying the EPA has to regulate CO2 without regard to cost and only with regard to public health? Yes, I am. You can imagine how this might not sit well with carbon-intensive industry such as oh idk fossil fuel production.

If you can’t go after the standards themselves because the Supreme Court says you have to make them, you can go after the science used to create the standards. So here’s the policy that’s going down:

This week, Scott Pruitt (head of the EPA) said in a closed-door meeting that he intends to enact restrictions on how scientific studies are used to make EPA rules. The policy will say that, if the EPA uses a scientific study to take an action or set a rule, they must make all of its underlying data publicly available. That data must be “sufficient for independent analysis and substantial reproduction of research results” (this wording is from HR 1430, which I’ll explain in a minute).

Generally speaking, the EPA is required to base all of its actions and rules on scientific evidence. Any standard they set, risk analysis, exposure and impact analysis, limitations, guidance on best practices–everything they do has to be based on the best available public health and environmental quality data. Any time they cite a scientific study, then, all of the underlying data used in that study would have to be made publicly available. The rationale is that the EPA’s rule-making should be “transparent”–they should not be basing rules that cost millions of dollars in industry compliance every year on data that are kept secret–hence, “secret science.” Never mind that these are peer-reviewed studies.

Problem #1: This would cost MILLIONS of dollars and hours and hours of labor.  The EPA has funded thousands and thousands of studies at thousands of institutions over decades–they’d have to track all that raw data down and compile it into a readable, usable format. Many studies known to be the best available science weren’t funded by the EPA. They’d have to track those researchers down and get permissions for all the data, assuming they’re still alive and the data haven’t been lost. The underlying data for public health studies include private health information–all of it would have to be redacted. And some landmark studies cite hundreds of other studies. Presumably, they’d have to get all the underlying data for all the studies they cite. This is nightmarish in scale, and–as is surely intended–prohibitive for setting almost any new standard.

A former EPA staffer, Betsy Southerland, has also pointed out: if the data have to be reproducible, that rules out some unique, incident-based studies, such as radiation exposure studies after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or impact analyses of the Gulf after the BP spill. They’re not reproducible, but these studies provide enormously valuable guidance for dealing with environmental hazards and crises. Not every study is reproducible, nor does it need to be.

Problem #2: The policy would certainly protect corporate trade secrets. That means private, industry-funded studies would, in effect, be exempt from the policy. Industry would benefit from access to tons of publicly-funded raw data, but would not be beholden to the public in the same way.

OF FUCKING NOTE: the closed-door meeting at which Pruitt announced his intention to enact this policy was at the fucking Heritage Foundation, a private, partisan institute. Sitting in the front row at that meeting was Lamar Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX).

Smith has tried for years to pass legislation to make this rule happen. Two versions of it passed the House (HR 1430 and HR 1030), but they never made it out of Senate subcommittees. That’s how we know where Scott Pruitt got the idea for the policy and what the content of the rule is likely to be. Pruitt can now sidestep Congress altogether and make it policy.

This isn’t about transparency. Not even close. What they want is to make it impossible to regulate climate change. Either this rule will delay standards from being set until underlying data is made available, or (what I actually suspect will happen) industry will take the raw data from publicly funded studies and twist it in order to present endless challenges to any standards the EPA does set. Bottom line, this rule forces a regulation lacuna where CO2 limits are so watered down as to be ineffectual or delayed in court challenges for so long they never get enacted.



TPP Part 2: The Secrecy Problem, Fast-Track, and Selling Out


The terms of the TPP have been negotiated over many years, presumably in ill-lit hotel ballrooms and dungeon-like conference rooms. The Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) and various advisory committees have hammered this agreement out with 11 other nations over what has to be, like, 11,000 pots of weak coffee? And it’s finally ready to go. Now, each member nation wants to make sure that nothing they’ve bargained for gets altered when it goes for approval before the US Congress. When you’ve arm-wrestled the representative from New Zealand into submission at 3 am in a hotel bar over what percentage of yeast in marmite has to originate within New Zealand before it passes customs with no tariffs, you want that provision to stick. So, President Obama has asked for “fast-track” authority, also known as trade promotion authority.

With this authority, the USTR and the advisory committee would author and submit the terms of the trade agreement to Congress, and Congress would simply vote up or down on the deal; that’s it. No committees, no public input or response, no filibustering, nothing: just a forced up-or-down vote on a bill that’s authored by the executive branch. That way, Congress wouldn’t be able to alter any of the provisions so painstakingly brokered over the last several years. This same trade promotion authority has been renewed many times in the past to cover negotiations of dozens of trade agreements, such as NAFTA and GATT.

Resistance to granting this authority, such as that coming from Senators Warren and Manchin, is grounded in concerns about public access to the agreement. The bill they proposed to get that transparency failed, and I think I can explain some of this. Continue reading

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Part 1: What’s all this, then?


In Part 1, I’ll outline the broad framework and some key provisions of the TPP. In Part 2, I’ll address the secrecy issue, the  corporate make-up of the advisory committees, and offer some brilliant thoughts.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is an international trade agreement under negotiation among 12 member countries/Parties: the US, Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam. This agreement, if approved, would encompass 40% of world GDP, one-third of all global exports, and almost half of the world’s foreign direct investment. If it goes through, it will end up covering about 60% of our own foreign trade. Due to this enormous scope, what’s agreed upon here will have impacts on trade rules for decades to come. I’m going to explain what I know about the major provisions of the TPP, and give you a rundown of points of interest and/or controversy.

But before I do that, you need to know this: I can’t read the official text of the TPP. It’s secret. Not classified, exactly, but secret from the general public. In fact, those who are cleared to read it have to agree that they won’t talk about it. So, as Michael Wessel explains, this presents a hilarious Catch-22: you can’t criticize what you can’t read. If you’re cleared to read it, you can’t talk about the specifics of what you’ve read. If you can’t talk about the specifics, President Obama can slam you for not being specific in your criticisms. BAM. SUCK IT, CRITICS Continue reading

Why we can’t have nice things, Part 532: Our electricity situation


One question I’m often asked is why low-carbon alternatives to fossil fuel energy haven’t taken off here to the extent that they have in other countries. Clearly, there isn’t just one reason. We have LOTS of ways to avoid progress! Today I’d like to explain one reason among many, because I think it illuminates a fundamental philosophical mistake in how we think about energy. We will be talking today about demand response resources. 

If you’re planning out how to meet energy needs for a given region over the next few years, you’re working out a balance between supply and demand. In the electricity game, generation resources are suppliers who generate megawatt-hours of electricity; e.g., power plants, wind farms, etc. You need to know how much electricity can be reliably generated, when, and where. But you also need to be able to predict and (to an extent) control demand. Enter demand response resources. DRRs are ways to reduce demand from the consumer end. This can be done a number of ways: reducing use during critical times, increasing efficiency of delivery, shutting the goddamn door, for crying out loud, were you born in a fucking barn, etc.

Here are some examples of demand response resources: Continue reading

Jen Reads: the REINS Act… so you don’t have to!


I made an announcement last year to the effect of “Don’t get me started on the REINS Act, man,”  but Rand Paul did not heed my warning. So this is what you get: me, started on this bill. You need to know about it because it already passed the House last year and has a decent shot of passing the Senate. That’s probably because the author of the Senate version is Rand Paul, who recently announced his candidacy for president. I’ll summarize it and give you my take (hint: no).

What is it? The REINS (Regulations from the Executive In Need of Scrutiny) Act proposes that major federal rules must be approved by both chambers of Congress. Congress would have 70 legislative days to approve a major rule via joint resolution, or it’s considered disapproved. Each rule submission would have to include a cost-benefit analysis, including a jobs report. Continue reading

Jen Reads the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act… so you don’t have to!


Indiana’s governor signed the state’s version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) into law this week, and if you get your information solely from memes, you either think this means the jack-booted government thugs have once more been driven back from the doorsteps of God-fearing Americans, OR that “Straights Only” lunch counters will be popping up on every corner. What is it actually about?

I’m going to argue that this law does not open up any new paths for Indiana businesses to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. You careful readers will note that this implies Indiana businesses can already discriminate on this basis. That is correct. It’s my contention that this law was passed as groundwork for a much larger, much more evil project. Let’s get to it, shall we? Continue reading

Jenergy: It’s not that they hate science, it’s that they love money.


Last week, you may have noticed that the House passed a flurry of bills slamming the EPA. Why does the House hate science and nature so hard? I’ll give you my take on what’s going on here.

As far as I can tell, this all begins with air quality standards set by the EPA. The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to set National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for pollutants that affect public health. One of those pollutants is ground-level ozone (smog), which presents a number of public health issues, including decreased lung function, severe respiratory problems, heart attacks, asthma attacks, and, I want to emphasize this, death.

The Scientific Advisory Board reviews available scientific data in order to recommend a standard for air quality– the threshold of ozone that produces the optimal number of deaths per year. The optimal number of deaths isn’t zero, of course. Consider that most people whose deaths are related to ozone are particularly susceptible–the old and infirm, the young and infirm, those with other respiratory insufficiencies, etc. But when you begin adding deaths of otherwise not-so-unhealthy people, that’s when public health officials frown. So, you have to find that sweet spot where mostly healthy people can hack it.

In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled that when the EPA sets the standards for ozone, it must not take into consideration how much it might cost to implement the standard. It must only look at what protects the public health. The limit they’ve been recommending is between 60-70 ppb. In 2008, the Bush administration went with 75 ppb, despite the EPA recommendation. In 2010, the EPA said, in a slightly louder voice, that 60-70 ppb would be better, health-wise, and maybe the lower end of that. Congress sneered, and the Obama administration caved. But the EPA has been under court order to settle on the standards, so on Nov. 25, they rolled out a slightly more relaxed limit of 65-70 ppb.

What causes all the hand-wringing is that, should this be enacted, many metropolitan areas would immediately be out of compliance. When an area is considered to be out of compliance, more strenuous guidelines are put into place for new manufacturing projects, and sometimes industry has to pay to offset its pollution. So, the new rule would immediately cost a bunch of money… but remember: the EPA can’t consider that when it sets the standards.

So if you can’t get the EPA to change the standards recommendation because of what the science says, you have to go after the science. Why is 60-70 ppb a good number, and not 75? One of the foundational studies used by the EPA to get this number is a landmark study, Bell et al. (2004). That study shows that between 1987 and 2000, we’ve averaged 20 deaths per day per city due to ozone. For every increase last week of 10 parts per billion of ozone, daily mortality rates due to ozone this week go up .52%. Just a little jump of 5 ppb doesn’t seem like much until you measure it in deaths.

If I wanted to look into the Bell study, I’d need to look at patient mortality information. That’s based on health records, which are confidential. I’d have to be content with the anonymized, compiled data. But the Bell study was funded by the EPA. So, if I’m a Congressperson, tasked with accepting or rejecting the EPA recommendation, should I be able to look at the confidential data in order to check out the study? That’s the sticky bit.

And what if I’m one of the scientists who co-authored the Bell study? Arguably, that would make me a really good person to ask about air quality and mortality. But if I’m on the Science Advisory Board, and I got a grant from the EPA to do this study, and I co-authored the study, is it a conflict of interest for me to help recommend air quality standards to the EPA?

I would say of course not. Public health research requires public grants, and scientists who know what they’re talking about are the people who did these studies. However, to Republicans, this looks like “stacking the deck” with EPA cronies. And matters are not helped at all when the SAB won’t turn over the health records upon which the studies are based. I understand why they’re not turning them over, but you can see why the policymakers are frustrated.

This is not to say that they’re right. They do not care about the public health aspect of this, make no mistake about it. They’re worried about the cost, and nothing else.