Semantically Correct ... Entirely Misleading

06/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • A. Siegel Energy, Environmental Blogger,

This is one of those cases where it's entirely possible to be semantically correct and leave a misleading impression.

How accurate was that reporting?

Media reports today are suggesting that OMB has found fault with with the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA)'s proposed finding that emissions of greenhouse gases from motor vehicles contribute to air pollution that endangers public health and welfare. Any reports suggesting that OMB was opposed to the finding are unfounded.

Peter R. Orszag,
Office of Management and Budget

When the director of an organization weighs in (quickly) to discuss reporting of an organizations work, that often suggests that the reporter just didn't get it.

In this case, not surprisingly, Republican politicians seized on a news report that the the Obama White House was pushing back against scientific-based EPA work finding that greenhouse gas emissions threaten Americans. The anti-science syndrome deniers and delayers whipped into a happy frenzy over this, seizing on the AP reporting that White House memo challenges EPA finding on warming

An Environmental Protection Agency proposal that could lead to regulating the gases blamed for global warming will prove costly for factories, small businesses and other institutions, according to a White House document.

This sounds pretty severe, no?

This reporting picks up on Republican action.

Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, waved the nine-page document at Lisa P. Jackson at a hearing of the Environment and Public Works committee this morning (see video above). He called it a "smoking gun" that proved the proposed finding was based on politics, not science.

"This misuse of the Clean Air Act will be a trigger for overwhelming regulation and lawsuits based on gases emitted from cars, schools, hospitals and small business," Mr. Barrasso said. "This will affect any number of other sources, including lawn mowers, snowmobiles and farms. This will be a disaster for the small businesses that drive America."

What is the next line of the EPA story?

The nine-page memo is a compilation of opinions made by a dozen federal agencies and departments before the EPA determined in April that greenhouse gases pose dangers to public health and welfare.

Note that this review occurred before Obama Administration political appointees and staff could take their posts (with many delayed by Republican action).

Note how this memo is marked:

labeled "Deliberative-Attorney Client Privilege,"

In fact, what this memo looks to be is a collection of opinions -- unnamed, unreferenced -- opinions from around the US government. These might, in fact, simply be holdovers from the previous Administration ("burrowed" holdovers, for example) seeking to continue to foster anti-science, pollution promoting policies. Interestingly, only one agency was the source of all the critiques ... thus, it is possible that just one holdover bureaucrat (that unnamed, unelected official) is the source of all the challenge.

UPDATE: In fact, the material in the memo came from a single Bush appointee in the Office of Advocacy in the Small Business Administration, who was formerly with the libertarian Mercatus Center (re Mercatus Center funding and the Mercatus Center board). From a Wall Street Journal article on Mercatus:

Mercatus's rise owes much to the oil-and-gas company Koch Industries Inc., (pronounced "coke"), a privately owned company in Wichita, Kan., that contributes heavily to Republican causes and candidates. A Koch family foundation has given Mercatus and George Mason University a total of $14.4 million since 1998, according to public documents analyzed by the Public Education Center, a Washington group that tracks environmental issues. A Koch spokesman says about half of the money went to Mercatus.

Clearing the Air

The quotations circulating in the press are from a document in which OMB simply collated and collected disparate comments from various agencies during the inter-agency review process of the proposed finding. These collected comments were not necessarily internally consistent, since they came from multiple sources, and they do not necessarily represent the views of either OMB or the Administration. In other words, we simply receive comments from various agencies and pass them along to EPA for consideration, regardless of the substantive merit of those comments. In general, passing along these types of comments to an agency proposing a finding often helps to improve the quality of the notice.

Perhaps more importantly, OMB concluded review of the preliminary finding several weeks ago, which then allowed EPA to move forward with the proposed finding. As I wrote on this blog on April 17, the "proposed finding is carefully rooted in both law and science." I also noted: "By itself, the EPA's proposed finding imposes no regulation. (Indeed, by itself, it requires nothing at all.) If and when the endangerment finding is made final, the EPA will turn to the question whether and how to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from new automobiles."

The bottom line is that OMB would have not concluded review, which allows the finding to move forward, if we had concerns about whether EPA's finding was consistent with either the law or the underlying science. The press reports to the contrary are simply false.

For an excellent discussion of this, see David Roberts at Grist.

This is one of those cases where it's entirely possible to be semantically correct and leave a misleading impression. The story in the bloodstream now is that the White House thinks EPA greenhouse gas regulations will kill the economy. If the headline had been, "random, un-named source somewhere in the federal bureaucracy believes EPA regulations unwise," it would have been more accurate but less linkworthy. ....

If a story is technically accurate (the memo was submitted, as required by law, by the OMB, which is a White House agency) but leaves a false impression (the comments in the memo do not reflect OMB or White House positions), is it legit? Is it worth criticizing? Do reporters have an obligation to contextualize and interpret or only to make non-false statements? Is this update way too long?

UPDATE: See also Stacy Morford, Solve Climate, 'Smoking Gun' Turns into Big Em-Barrasso-ment for GOP