EPA Reform Measures Face White House Opposition

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White House claims EPA reform legislation is expensive, unnecessary, and arbitrary.

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Some Republican politicians have expressed disdain for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Representative Michele Bachmann once pledged to padlock its doors, and House Speaker John Boehner called one of its recent proposals “nuts.”

Given this perception, it should come as no surprise that some Republicans are pushing for passage of two bills to change how the EPA uses scientific evidence to craft regulation. One bill, the Secret Science Reform Act, would prohibit the EPA from “proposing, finalizing, or disseminating regulations or assessments based upon science that is not transparent or reproducible.” It would compel the agency to release all scientific and technical information used in its assessments.

Another bill, the Science Advisory Board Reform Act, would change the membership and procedures of the agency’s Science Advisory Board, a panel of independent experts who make recommendations to the agency on the quality of scientific and technical information considered to frame regulations.

At first glance, the proposed legislation appears to square with President Obama’s promise to promote agency transparency and safeguard public confidence in the science informing policy decisions. But in a pair of statements, the White House announced its staff would advise President Obama to veto both bills. The White House opposes the so-called Secret Science bill because it believes it would unduly burden the agency and restrain important regulatory action by arbitrarily restricting the data the EPA can use.

Further, the Obama Administration opposes the Advisory Board bill for fear it will limit the Board’s effectiveness by instituting quotas based on employment by a state, local, or tribal government rather than relying purely on scientific expertise. Yet these statements, perhaps ironically, urge Congress to support the administration’s endeavor to make scientific and technical data more accessible and regulation more transparent.

Supporters, including industry groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Chemistry Council, believe that the Secret Science bill would improve how the EPA uses scientific data, making its regulations more effective. One of the bill’s most vocal supporters, Representative Lamar Smith, chair of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, says the EPA needs more transparency given that it has proposed some of the costliest regulations in history. He cites, for example, an EPA ozone rule that will cost taxpayers approximately $90 billion per year, as well as a Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS) rule for power plants that could cost up to $10 billion every year. Smith pointed out that more than 99% of the health-based justifications offered for the MATS rule derive from scientific research that the EPA will not disclose publicly.

The Secret Science bill presents challenging issues. First, the legality of mandatory disclosure of all scientific data underlying a rule is contested. In a letter to lawmakers, American Statistical Association president David Morganstein asserts that the EPA would have to exclude public health research that relies on patient data like hospital admission records from consideration because confidential patient data cannot be made public. The use of data constituting trade secrets would also be barred as a result of this bill.

Second, the bill might create significant fiscal burdens. While Republicans state that it is possible to use data without disclosing personal information or trade secrets, the Congressional Budget Office reports that the EPA relies on approximately 50,000 scientific studies per year, and that meeting the goals of the Secret Science would cost between $10,000 and $30,000 per study. The report anticipates the EPA might choose to reduce the cost of compliance by relying on fewer scientific studies or on those already easily accessible, which might compromise the quality of the agency’s work.

Representative Chris Stewart, who sponsored the Advisory Board bill, said that increased opportunities for public comment, acknowledgment of dissenting panelists’ opinions, and partially barring scientists from advising on their own research would go a long way in making the Board’s decisions more balanced. However, the bill allows industry lobbyists to serve on the Board as long as conflicts of interest are disclosed. By contrast, scientists on the panel are barred from advising the EPA on their own research unless it is externally peer-reviewed and publicly disclosed.

The Union of Concerned Scientists argues that the provisions increasing corporate access to the Board, yet undermining the involvement of academics and scientists, are counter-productive. Advocacy groups also warn that the bill could create an “endless loop” of public comment that will significantly increase the EPA’s workload and reduce productivity.

Both bills passed the House of Representatives and companion legislation in the Senate was referred to the Committee on Environment & Public Works.