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.



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