The Republicans’ war on the EPA has begun in earnest, but the first shots passed just below the public radar.
Tuesday’s news was swamped with the Senate’s failed Keystone XL vote. But on the same day, the Republican-led House of Representatives passed HR 1422 by a vote of 229-191. On Wednesday, the House also passed HR 4012 by 237-190.
Both bills contain audacious and disturbing new rules to curb the power of the Environmental Protection Agency. I’ll explain them in more detail below.
HR 4012 – The Secret Science Reform Act of 2014
Sponsored by Republican Representative David Schweikert (AZ), the Secret Science Reform Act presents what one scientist calls “a Catch-22 for the EPA.”
While claiming to improve the agency’s transparency, this bill would require the EPA to publish all data pertinent to its decisions before issuing new rules. On the surface, this sounds perfectly reasonable. Here’s the catch: This would include disclosing private medical data, trade secrets and industry data – and the EPA cannot legally do that.
As Dr. Andrew A. Rosenberg, the director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, explains, “Today, anyone with an Internet connection, including members of Congress, can already look up which studies the agency relies on for crafting new rules. But in many cases it cannot legally publish raw data.”
Raw data, in this case, can include information like hospital admissions and private medical information, things that Rosenberg is adamant “could not, and should not, be made public.”
Yet the studies that utilize this private data, the studies that can be accessed by anyone, are really what matter anyway since they actually put information together and help the EPA make policy decisions. These studies, writes Rosenberg, “have gone through the scientific process, including rigorous peer review, safeguards to protect the privacy of study participants, and careful review to make sure there’s no manipulation for political or financial gain.”
By forcing the EPA to make private data public, HR 4012 essentially removes the EPA’s power to make rules that safeguard Americans’ health – because to do so would be illegal. It is the definition of a Catch-22 and gives Congress “a way to accuse the agency of hiding something when it has nothing to hide.”
It would almost be clever if it wasn’t so insane.
HR 1422 – The EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act of 2014
This bill was sponsored by Republican Rep. Chris Stewart (UT) and passed the House on November 18. Before getting into its details, you should a know a little bit about Mr. Stewart.
Stewart is a climate change denier, which doesn’t make him that unique among Republicans. However, Stewart has publicly stated that energy regulation “is a boot on the throat of small business” and that “the EPA thwarts energy development.” In an interview, he said that he would like to see the agency dissolved.
HR 1422 does not dissolve the EPA, but it would neuter it.
In a press release, Rep. Stewart said that President Obama is using the EPA to “aggressively pursu[e] costly regulations that impact nearly every sector of the American economy. These rules should be based on sound scientific assertions and conclusions. It’s critical that we have a balanced panel of experts operating in an open and transparent way.”
According to Stewart, 1422 “improves that process in key areas.” The bill reforms the type of people that make up the EPA’s Science Advisory Board.
Today, the SAB contains 51 members that are appointed by the EPA Administrator for three-year terms. In its capacity to advise the Administrator, the SAB is authorized to “review the quality and relevance of the scientific and technical information being used by the EPA or proposed as the basis for Agency regulations,” which includes research programs and plans. Members of the SAB chair various subcommittees and panels on environmental science topics, and they only make recommendations to the EPA based on topics they deem appropriate.
On paper, 1422 “strengthens public participation and public comment opportunities” of the SAB, “improves the make-up of SAB and its sub-panels by reinforcing peer review requirements regarding balance and independence,” “requires opportunities for dissenting panelists to make their views known” and “limits non-scientific policy advice and recommendations.”
What this actually translates to, according to Dr. Rosenberg, is a set of new “roadblocks for the agency”:
“[HR 1422] would make it easier for experts with ties to corporations affected by new rules to serve on the SAB while excluding independent scientists from talking about their own research. In other words, academic scientists who know the most about a subject can’t weigh in, but experts paid by corporations who want to block regulations can.”
The bill would also “drown the SAB in paperwork by making it difficult to set a deadline on public comments on its work.” Today, the EPA opens itself to the public multiple times as part of its decision making process.
The Baddest Bills on Capitol Hill
“These bills won’t promote good science or public health,” writes Dr. Rosenberg, “because that’s not what they’re designed to do. The goal of these bills is what some politicians openly say is their top priority: crippling the EPA.”
Since their 2014 midterm sweep, Republicans have been vociferous about their disdain for EPA regulations. Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who will become the Majority Leader in January, has said that his top priority is “to try to do whatever I can to get the EPA reined in.”
McConnell hails from a coal state, and by that I mean Kentucky generates 93 percent of its electricity from coal, which is a problem when the EPA and President Obama want to put the country on track to reduce its carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2030. To do so would put a significant dent in America’s industrial emissions, which together with China make up almost half of the world’s greenhouse gas pollution.
Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping recently partnered to make serious headway on reducing their countries’ emissions, but McConnell and his party simply refuse to get on board with that kind of climate action, despite the major investments in clean energies taking place across the developing world.
In a recent editorial for The Hill, Rep. Eddie Johnson (D-TX), the ranking member on the Science, Space and Technology Committee, describes HRs 4012 and 1422 as,
“…the culmination of one of the most anti-science and anti-health campaigns I’ve witnessed in my 22 years as a member of Congress. As someone who worked in public health before I entered politics, I can think of no mission of the federal government that is more important or noble than EPA’s mission to ‘protect human health and the environment.’”
Dr. Rosenberg concurs: “As many politicians have taken pains to point out, they are not scientists, so they should listen to scientific advice instead of making spurious demands for unanalyzed data.”
Both of these bills are intended not to protect the health and well-being of Americans but to hamstring an agency that Republicans disagree with.
Also, it’s worth noting that taxpayers’ money could be better spent on other things. HR 4012 would reportedly cost as much as $1 billion over the next four years, while 1422 would cost an estimated $2 million.