Inspector General’s Evaluation of EPA’s Endangerment Finding: Form over Function?

As Greenwire reported, the Inspector General of the EPA recently released a report criticizing how the agency followed (and deviated from) procedures in publishing the Technical Support Document that underpinned its December 2009 Endangerment Finding.  The IG was instructed to conduct this review at the order of Senator Inhofe (R-OK), the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.  The review, which cost nearly $300,000, examined only whether EPA followed its own procedures and those of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and did not analyze the validity of the scientific or technical information used to support the endangerment finding.  Although news of the report is likely to reinvigorate GOP criticism of the endangerment finding and the climate change regulations that followed, the IG repeats throughout the report that it is an evaluation of data quality procedures, not the quality of the data itself or the conclusions that EPA reached.  Plus, as EPA highlighted in its response to the IG’s report, the peer-reviewed studies conducted since the endangerment finding only serve to strengthen the validity of the science that EPA relied upon.

The key conclusion the IG reached is that the Technical Support Document (TSD), in which EPA summarized the results of the leading scientific assessments on climate change, did not meet the OMB’s peer-review requirements. The problem turns on whether the TSD was a “highly influential scientific assessment” — defined in the OMB regulations as an assessment that could have an impact on the public or private sector of more than $500 million in one year or is novel, controversial or precedent setting.   Such assessments require more attention to peer review, and agencies have to follow specific peer review procedures laid out by the OMB and certify that they have done so. 

The IG concluded the TSD was a "highly influential scientific assessment" because EPA weighed the strength of the available science and chose what information to include.  In summarizing the world of data down to a manageable document, the IG argues, EPA made choices that qualify as science. EPA officials, on the other hand, argue that the TSD does not meet this threshold, since it does not contain any new science or conclusions.  Instead, it’s more of an annotated bibliography, summarizing findings from prior studies, all of which had been extensively peer-reviewed. 

The EPA’s Peer Review Handbook allows use of already-peer-reviewed studies to support EPA decisions, so long as the EPA checks to see whether the earlier peer review meets its standards. The IG criticizes that EPA didn’t certify to this double-checking in any of its publicly released documents.  Additionally, although the EPA did have the TSD reviewed by a panel of 12 climate change scientists before publishing it, the IG concludes that this did not meet the OMB requirements for a “peer review” because the review results and EPA response were not publicly reported, and one of the twelve panelists was an EPA employee.   

The story that EPA failed to follow its own procedures in analyzing the science behind this critical decision certainly reads well, and could be very potent fuel to add to anti-EPA rhetoric.  But my conclusion is that this dispute seems manufactured, or at the very least, far too focused on form over function and style over substance. Although the quality of data in science is a real issue, the primary issue here seems to be that EPA could have been better at showing its work, rather than a question of whether it, or the world’s climate scientists, did the work to begin with.  

One thought on “Inspector General’s Evaluation of EPA’s Endangerment Finding: Form over Function?

  1. If Sen. Inhofe’s objective was to demonstrate poor scientific judgement by EPA, then it would be hard to count the effort you describe here as a success for him. On the other hand, if his goal was only to throw some red meat to his supporters (and perhaps to garner a few headlines), then perhaps this effort will suffice in the short term. EPA does a great deal of science and much of it is world class work, but there can be an inverse relationship between the quality of the science the agency does and the political importance of the scientific content. This may be the point that Inhofe was trying, but failed to make.

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