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.



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

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.

Jen reads the Secret Science bill so you don’t have to


President Obama is inking up his ‘veto’ stamp and practicing his WTF face this week. Some of that was for the utterly useless Keystone XL bill, of course, but he’s also staying in veto-ready shape for the three EPA bills currently making their way through the House. One has passed the House already, HR 4012, also known as the “Secret Science” bill.

What it does: Prevents the EPA from taking any action without making “all” of the scientific and technical data it uses to justify its activities publicly available online. They would also be required to provide enough information for people to be able to conduct an independent review of the data. However, the bill says that shouldn’t be construed as requiring them to disclose confidential information that’s currently illegal to disclose.

What’s the point? Presumably, to make the EPA be “transparent” about how it scientifically justifies its assessments and regulations.

What’s behind this? Here’s the real story: Over the past few years, the EPA has set more stringent penalties for certain kinds of air pollution. They used two landmark studies, among others, that link air pollution to lung cancer to justify the regulations. The House Science Committee, under Lamar Smith, was unhappy about the new regulations, in part, I suspect, because, as ruled by the Supreme Court, greenhouse gases now count as air pollution. That means fossil fuel emissions can be regulated by the EPA in terms of public health.

So, Smith wanted to see the data on those two studies that justified the new regulations, and subpoenaed the EPA for it. The problem is, the EPA didn’t do those studies. They were conducted by independent researchers at Harvard and the American Cancer Society. So the researchers have the data, not the EPA. The studies involve confidential patient information, which is illegal to disclose. The studies, however, are published and peer-reviewed, and the patient data kept anonymous. Like the law says. But Smith threw a fit because he couldn’t have ALL the data, regardless of who had the authority to give it to whom. He blamed the EPA and got this bill started.

Why this bill sucks: Look, the EPA is using peer-reviewed studies. It’s not like this stuff was being done in secret to begin with. So, calling something “secret” makes it sound like it’s secret when it’s not secret. What’s that called again?

Even if this bill had been in effect when Smith subpoenaed the EPA, they still couldn’t have given him the information–the bill specifically doesn’t require disclosure of information that’s currently illegal to disclose. So this bill is useless. It’s worse than useless, because it would make the EPA responsible for requesting, compiling, reading, and curating all data associated with every peer-reviewed study it reads. That would not only add an enormous amount of time and financial burden to all regulatory activity, it would make the EPA, effectively, another layer of peer-review to already peer-reviewed studies. Further, it would force scientists to comply–not only a bureaucratic nightmare, but yet another show of distrust in scientists.

Cranky Jen is Cranky about This Today: H.R. 3 passes the House


The House voted today in favor of a bill that would eliminate the permitting process for the Keystone XL pipeline (H.R. 3). Why is Jen cranky about this?

1. It waives all permitting requirements for a foreign company’s project. We don’t do legislation-level permit-waivers for domestic companies. In short, we don’t do legislation “about” single corporations AT ALL. This would set a dangerous precedent.

Yaaay, this is fun! This is fuuuuuuuuuu

2. The permitting process is already underway. This bill would eliminate requirements for the health, environmental, and safety evaluations currently taking place. These are necessary evaluations. Bypassing them for one company is against our interests in public health and national security.

I mean, really. It is YOUR JOB.

3. Mostly, I’m cranky about the hypocrisy. The green energy loan-guarantee program is derided by House Republicans as an instance of the government “picking winners and losers.” But a bill singling out and making special ONE corporation’s project is okay? I guess it’s okay when each rep who voted in favor of this bill received, on average, 10 times more in contributions from fossil fuel companies than reps voting against. There’s a connection there, but I can’t… quite… see… what…

Luckily, this is the 7th time the House has voted for a measure like this, and none have made it through the Senate. I seriously doubt this one will, either, and Obama has declared he’d veto it if it did.