Science Policy & Funding News

EPA Comes Under the Gun in Congressional Hearing

The hearing also examined a complaint that a former NOAA scientist manipulated data in a high-profile global warming paper.

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Republicans in the new U.S. Congress unleashed on Tuesday some of their opening salvos against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which they say creates unnecessary and burdensome regulations, among other concerns. They also discussed a claim that a former scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) manipulated data in a paper disputing that there was a recent pause in global warming.

During the past 8 years, under the Obama administration, “the EPA has pursued a political agenda, not a scientific one,” according to Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, which convened a hearing on “Making EPA Great Again.” The hearing, whose title is a play on President Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again,” came just days after Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) introduced legislation to eliminate EPA.

Despite the protests of Democrats on the science committee, Smith and other Republicans faulted on multiple counts the sorts of regulations the EPA has issued and how those rules were developed. The critics said the agency’s regulations lack scientific transparency and place a heavy burden on taxpayers. The rules also undergo inadequate peer review and are evaluated in cost-benefit analyses that improperly support the agency’s positions, said House members who derided the agency.

According to Smith, the agency’s proposed regulations under the Obama administration, including the Clean Power Plan, “would have no significant impact” on the environment. Yet “the EPA has proposed some of the most expensive and expansive and ineffective regulations in history,” Smith claimed.

Suggested Reforms for EPA

Several witnesses at the hearing urged legislative and administrative reforms at EPA. “The change in administration creates an opportune moment for refining the mission of EPA,” said Jeff Holmstead, a Washington D. C.–based partner at the law firm Bracewell and head of the firm’s environmental strategies group.

He was previously assistant EPA administrator for air and radiation from 2001 to 2005, where he led the office charged with implementing the Clean Air Act. “If we focus on sound science and good regulatory design, we could have the environmental protection we all want at a much lower cost than we have today,” he said.

Another witness, Kimberly White, senior director for chemical products and technology for the American Chemical Council, spoke in support of the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) Reform Act introduced by committee member Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) during the last Congress. The act would help to ensure that agency decisions include feedback from experts from a variety of relevant fields and backgrounds, she said. Lucas told the hearing that he is “concerned that the [SAB] has become an echo chamber for EPA.”

With regard to other possible legislation, Holmstead encouraged the committee to consider the Secret Science Reform Act, which Smith introduced during the last Congress. “When regulations impose billions of dollars [of costs] on consumers and businesses, it is surely appropriate for the government to spend a tiny fraction of this amount to ensure that the scientific information used to support those regulations can be made public,” he said.

Neither bill has yet been reintroduced in the current congressional session.

Holmstead also called for the committee to scrutinize EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS). He said that outside experts say that IRIS often overstates the actual risk posed by specific chemicals.

Democrats Urge Caution in Tinkering with EPA

However, Democrats on the committee defended EPA for its history of cleaning up the environment, and they urged Congress to be cautious in tinkering with the agency and with science.

“The efforts by some to undermine how the EPA, and other federal agencies, uses science threaten our economy, threaten public health, threaten the environment, and threaten public confidence in our government, said committee ranking member Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas). “This is especially true when efforts rely on biased, incomplete, and misleading information, ‘alternate facts,’ if you will, in an attempt to advance a provably false narrative against the EPA.”

At the hearing, U.S. Rep. Don Beyer donned a red baseball cap reading “Keep the EPA Great.”
At the hearing, U.S. Rep. Don Beyer donned a red baseball cap reading “Keep the EPA Great.” Credit: Randy Showstack

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who donned a red baseball cap reading “Keep the EPA Great,” said that the committee should be leading the charge to protect the planet from climate change and other threats. “Instead, it attacks the credibility of scientists, casts doubt on accepted science, and makes life difficult for people trying to solve urgent crises.”

One witness, Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and executive publisher of Science, wryly noted that the title of the hearing “acknowledges that the EPA has been great.” He said that the agency’s success is owed to environmental regulations such as the Clean Air Act that have been based on science.

Holt, a former member of Congress, expressed concern about any legislative or administrative reforms that could undermine the integrity of the scientific process or the ability of federal agencies to use rigorous science in establishing polices. He acknowledged criticisms about the cost of environmental regulations and of addressing climate change but said that “most of the debate pays insufficient attention to the cost of not addressing” those concerns.

He added that “we urge caution in setting laws that would make science a combat zone.”

Tipping the Scale at NOAA?

During the hearing, Smith castigated NOAA for a paper published in Science by former agency scientist Tom Karl and others that stated that there was no pause in global warming from 1998 to 2013. In a 4 February blog post, John Bates, former principal scientist at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., wrote that Karl placed “his ‘thumb on the scale’—in the documentation, scientific choices, and release of data sets—in an effort to discredit the notion of a global warming hiatus and rush to time the publication of the paper to influence national and international deliberations on climate policy.”

However, E&E News reported on 7 February that Bates said that “the issue here is not an issue of tampering with data, but rather really of timing of a release of a paper that had not properly disclosed everything it was.”

In a heated exchange with Smith, Holt said, “This is not a making of a big scandal. This is an internal dispute between two factions within an agency. There is nothing in the Karl paper that in our current analysis suggests a retraction.”

Holt said that other studies have since come up with the same conclusion that there was no pause in global warming. “If the inspector general at NOAA wants to look at [the Karl paper], that’s fine,” he said, but the concern raised by Bates “does not change the policy-relevant conclusions about climate change.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2017), EPA comes under the gun in congressional hearing, Eos, 98, https://doi.org/10.1029/2017EO067573. Published on 09 February 2017.
© 2017. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0