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Are There "Serious Flaws" in the EPA's Bid to Regulate Greenhouse Gases?


epa-headquartersDid the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency err when it found in 2009 that greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, endanger public health? Based on a new report from the agency's Inspector General, climate change denier and U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., would like you to think so, trumpeting in a press release headline that the "EPA IG finds serious flaws in centerpiece of Obama global warming agenda."

Here's what the inspector general actually wrote (pdf) in typical dry, bureaucratic prose: "EPA met statutory requirements for rulemaking and generally followed requirements and guidance related to ensuring the quality of the supporting technical information."

The "serious flaws" that Inhofe points to? EPA relied on the judgment of the U.S. Global Change Research Program, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. National Research Council to determine that greenhouse gases endanger public health (because they cause climate change)—though the inspector general had no problem with this approach, simply arguing that a "more rigorous" peer review should have been undertaken. And EPA included one of its own employees on a panel of 12 federal climate change scientists who reviewed a document supporting the endangerment finding. The agency also failed to make public the findings of that panel and EPA's own response to them.

The report addresses an April 7, 2010, Inhofe request to review the greenhouse gas finding process and determine whether it followed appropriate procedures. EPA largely did, except that the inspector general wrote that its technical documents for the process constituted a "highly influential scientific assessment," which requires adherence to specific guidelines on peer review per the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. For its part, the OMB wrote that EPA did its job correctly, as noted in this letter.

Largely, Inhofe seems to question whether the EPA should have relied on the IPCC, whose reports have been called into question by various critics, brought to the fore by so-called Climategate emails. Of course, EPA also relied on the scientific conclusions of one of the most pre-eminent U.S. science organizations—the NRC. Nevertheless, Inhofe plans to call for hearings into the matter now that the inspector general's report is out.

Setting aside all the bureaucratic language and hyperbole, the report is essentially another loss for those who would like to deny EPA the authority to regulate greenhouse gases (something it has said it will not do before 2012). In short, EPA can continue to move forward to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, when the agency finally gets around to it.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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