EPA opts for accountability and transparency in environmental science

EPA opts for accountability and transparency in environmental science
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On Tuesday, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittTrump official violated ethics rules in seeking EPA job for relative, watchdog finds Pelosi hammers Pompeo, Trump: 'Scandalous' to dismiss IGs EPA emails reveal talks between Trump officials, chemical group before 2017 settlement MORE signed a proposed rule to prevent the agency from relying on scientific studies that don’t publish their underlying data.

“The era of secret science at EPA is coming to an end,” Pruitt said. “The ability to test, authenticate, and reproduce scientific findings is vital for the integrity of the rulemaking process. Americans deserve to assess the legitimacy of the science underpinning EPA decisions that may impact their lives.”


This is a welcome move. For too long, the agency has refused to release the data underpinning the scientific findings that it uses to justify environmental regulations that require billions of dollars in compliance costs.


The EPA’s proposed rule is entirely consistent with the scientific method employed in research since the 17th century. What matters is systematic observation, measurement and experimentation — all to test and confirm hypotheses. It’s the only logical means to separate truth from falsehood. And, if implemented properly, it holds no bias. Essentially, any Doubting Thomas can simply perform the same experiment to confirm the results.

The EPA, like most other federal regulatory agencies, performs a cost-benefit analysis to estimate the overall benefits that a proposed regulation would offer, as well as the costs that it would impose on society. And then it determines whether the benefits outweigh the costs.

In 1991, a panel of outside scientists brought in to review EPA practices discovered that the agency often tailors its science to justify what it wants to do, and shields key research from peer review. The EPA administrator at the time, William Reilly, commented, “Scientific data have not always been featured prominently in environmental efforts and have sometimes been ignored even when available.” Despite that warning, it appears the EPA has lapsed back into its old practices.

The development of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan is a cautionary tale in similarly questionable science. In 2015, President Obama announced a proposal to curb carbon dioxide emissions from America’s power plants, an effort he deemed necessary to avert “climate change.” 

Since the EPA could not show that the proposal would actually accomplish anything to reduce global temperatures, it justified the net benefit of the rule based on reductions in power plants’ emissions of fine particulate matter, or tiny particles of dust and soot.

The agency’s own cost-benefit analysis showed that the costs for industry to comply with the plan could be as high as $33 billion a year, while the economic benefits from reducing emissions would be as much as $55 billion a year.

The EPA calculated the $55 billion in economic benefits based on the premise that thousands of premature deaths would be prevented every year by the Clean Power Plan because of reduced particulate emissions. The EPA valued the lives saved at approximately $9 million each. 

The problem is, the EPA’s analysis was suspect. No scientific evidence emerged to support the notion that outdoor particulates kill people. When Congress demanded that the EPA produce the data it relied on, it defied a congressional subpoena in order to keep its study secret. In fact, a 2014 study found no statistical correlation between fine airborne particulates and premature deaths.

When Scott Pruitt became the EPA administrator, he initiated a more reasonable review of the Clean Power Plan, and the projected economic benefits were cut to $26 billion per year. When compared to $33 billion per year in compliance costs, it became obvious that the supposed benefits simply don’t justify the costs. 

It’s good to see that the EPA is finally willing to hold itself accountable. Such transparency is a welcome move toward sound scientific principles. Hopefully, this will lead to more reasonable and effective regulation. 

Terry M. Jarrett is an energy attorney and consultant who has served on both the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Missouri Public Service Commission.