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EPA scolded on greenhouse gas report review process

September 28, 2011 |  5:28 pm

Lisajackson
Opponents of the federal government's efforts to rein in planet-warming greenhouse gases were trumpeting victory Wednesday over a report by the Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general that chided the agency for its peer-review process on a scientific document.

At issue is how the agency subjected a "technical support document" to scrutiny before finding that greenhouse gases posed a danger to the public and therefore merited regulation.

Few decisions by the agency have met with more uproar than the so-called endangerment finding on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases -- despite a U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled that the EPA had the statutory authority to regulate such emissions.

Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), a denier of the scientific consensus that human activity is causing the planet to warm, had requested the review last year in his role as ranking GOP member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, chaired by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

Here's what Inhofe had to say:

This report confirms that the endangerment finding, the very foundation of President Obama’s job-destroying regulatory agenda, was rushed, biased and flawed. It calls the scientific integrity of EPA’s decision-making process into question and undermines the credibility of the endangerment finding.

Here's what Boxer said:

The EPA inspector general in no way questions the science underlying the endangerment finding. It is time to move on to protect the American people from the impacts of climate change, which we are already beginning to see.

And here's what Inspector General Arthur A. Elkins Jr. said:

We concluded that the technical support document that accompanied EPA’s endangerment finding is a highly influential scientific assessment and thus required a more rigorous EPA peer review than occurred. EPA did not certify whether it complied with OMB’s or its own peer review policies in either the proposed or final endangerment findings as required. While it may be debatable what impact, if any, this had on EPA’s finding, it is clear that EPA did not follow all required steps for a highly influential scientific assessment. We also noted that documentation of events and analyses could be improved.

The report went on to say that it was not evaluating the quality of the science itself:

We made no determination regarding the impact that EPA’s information quality control systems may have had on the scientific information used to support the finding. We did not test the validity of the scientific or technical information used to support the endangerment finding, nor did we evaluate the merit of EPA’s conclusions or analyses.

So why all the hoopla?

Since the campaign that leaked internal emails of climate scientists while policymakers were gathered in Copenhagen to hammer out international accords on curbing global warming two years ago, skeptics have been chiseling away at any doubt or anomaly in scientific work. The so-called Climategate scientists since have been exonerated by several international scientific panels. But the push to exploit any crack -- real or perceived -- in the science continues.

The EPA is quibbling with its own inspector general, based on a bureaucratic but important distinction. Scientific documents that are considered "highly influential" have to meet review requirements set by the White House's Office of Management and Budget. The inspector general said the document in question was "highly influential," while the EPA hierarchy disagrees. 

The inspector general said the EPA's technical support document had a high influence on the agency's eventual decision because the agency "weighed the strength of available science by its choices of information, data, studies and conclusions included in and excluded from" the technical support document.

The EPA has had no official reply to the inspector general's report, but issued the following statement:

We appreciate the important role played by the inspector general’s office and will give the recommendations in this report the utmost consideration.

Most importantly, the report does not question or even address the science used or the conclusions reached –- by EPA under this and the previous administration -– that greenhouse gas pollution poses a threat to the health and welfare of the American people. Instead, the report is focused on questions of process and procedure. While EPA will consider the specific recommendations, we disagree strongly with the inspector general’s findings and followed all the appropriate guidance in preparing this finding.

EPA undertook a thorough and deliberate process in the development of this finding, including a careful review of the wide range of peer-reviewed science. Since EPA finalized the endangerment finding in December of 2009, the vast body of peer-reviewed science that EPA relied on to make its determination has undergone further examination by a wide range of independent scientific bodies. All of those reviews have upheld the validity of the science.

The agency has 90 days in which to file a written response.

The science used in the agency's technical support document came largely from the U.S. Global Change Research Program, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the National Research Council. All have compiled studies from thousands of scientists to reach their conclusions that the documented rise in Earth's average temperature is likely caused by human activity, particularly in recent decades.

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-- Geoff Mohan

Photo: EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson speaks to the news media in October 2009 at a ceremony held in Long Beach to announce funding to reduce Southern California air pollution. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times

 

 

 

 

 

 

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