09/28/2011 11:11 am ET | Updated Nov 28, 2011

EPA Inspector General Criticizes Greenhouse Gas Ruling Procedure

A new report by the Inspector General of the EPA questions the EPA's procedures in making a 2009 endangerment finding about excess greenhouse gas emissions.

The report "calls the scientific integrity of EPA's decision-making process into question and undermines the credibility of the endangerment finding," according to Sen James Inhofe, the senate Environment and Public Works committee minority leader.

The report, released today, does not argue the science, but says that the EPA should have conducted further peer review because the ruling was highly influential.

epa dataAt Issue

In 2007 the supreme court found that greenhouse gases are air pollutants under the Clean Air Act. The court instructed the EPA to determine whether emissions of greenhouse gases from new motor vehicles cause or contribute to air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare, or whether climate change science is too uncertain to make a reasoned decision.

All of the research the EPA considered in assessing this question was extensively peer reviewed, including the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report; four reports by the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS); 18 independent federal studies; and the international Arctic Climate Impact Assessment.

Since the finding, the NAS has reconfirmed the science, saying in May that it now be regarded as "settled facts" that climate change is occurring, is most likely caused by human activities, and separately, that it poses a significant threat to public health and the environment.

It's not about the science

The IG's findings don't question the science. Instead, the IG questions whether the EPA followed the proper procedure, suggesting the agency should have conducted its own peer review of all the literature, instead of relying on the peer-review processes of the National Research Council and other scientific bodies that issued the underlying reports and studies.

The IG's position contradicts the EPA's own peer review handbook, which in December of 2000 laid out the policy the EPA was to follow:

The goal of the Peer Review Policy and this Handbook is to enhance the quality and credibility of Agency decisions by ensuring that the scientific and technical work products underlying these decisions receive appropriate levels of peer review by independent scientific and technical experts. (emphasis added)

The National Academies' work has been the gold standard of scientific research since president Lincoln signed its charter in 1863. But the body is independent, and members of congress, federal agencies, and others requesting research have no control or influence on its outcome. In a time in the United States in which climate science is denied by leading republicans, this makes the studies the body authors the subject of political attacks.

The peer review was already recursive

In addition to relying on independently peer-reviewed research, the EPA's endangerment finding underwent a technical review by 12 federal climate change experts, and internal EPA review, an interagency review, and a public comment period.

The inspector general argues that the EPA did not follow a set of peer review guidelines (pdf) issued by the Bush White House Office of Management and Budget for dealing with controversial science, which require agencies to conduct another layer of peer review and exclude any agency employees from review panels when the policy implications of a ruling could exceed $500 million annually.

Attacks on the Endangerment Ruling

Ten groups--including coal and energy companies, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and politicians acting on behalf of Texas and Virginia--petitioned the agency to drop the finding, arguing against the agency's procedural handling of the science, and against climate change science itself.

In July 2010, the EPA rejected the petitions, arguing that they were erroneous in fact and science, and that the agency had adequately responded to the concerns raised during its comment period for the new rules.

Since then, other attempts have been made by republican members of congress to strip EPA of its authority to regulate greenhouse gases, and to cast doubt on the credibility of the EPA's analysis.

The man behind the curtain

Sen. James Inhofe requested the IG prepare the report, and leaked it early this morning. Inhofe argues that climate change is a "hoax" and refuses to admit that climate change and its likely human cause are, in the words of the National Academy of Sciences, "settled facts."

In his request (pdf), Inhofe argued that several of the scientists the EPA used lacked impartiality because they had previously made public statements saying that climate change is a fact. By this logic, the vast majority of climate scientists would be unacceptable to Inhofe, and US scientists would be muzzled from talking about the facts of their findings because they had political implications.

The problem with this thinking is that science is independent of scientists - it's based on observations and facts that are laid out for anyone to tear down if they can, and in the case of climate science, it has withstood withering scrutiny. Whether a scientist has made a public comment is immaterial.

Inhofe then argues that the OMB guidelines says that the EPA's panels should be "balanced" in perspectives; ie "We emphasize that the term "balance" here refers not to balancing of stakeholder or political interests but rather to a broad and diverse representation of respected perspectives and intellectual traditions within the scientific community, as discussed in the NAS policy on committee composition and balance." But climate change is, in the words of the NAS, "so thoroughly examined and tested, and supported by so many independent observations and results, that their likelihood of subsequently being found to be wrong is vanishingly small," so providing the two percent of scientists who are somewhat skeptical a seat on a 12-person review committee would not be "balanced."

This highlights Inhofe's approach to all climate science: to treat it as if it were a battle of opinions, instead of a data-driven conclusion based on multiple lines of facts that all point in the same direction. That places opinion on an equal footing with knowledge, and erodes the basis of our democratic republic.

The inspector general made it clear that EPA followed current guidelines for ensuring that it based its decision on robust science. Nothing in the report questions the agency's ability to move forward with global warming emissions rules. But Inhofe can be expected to continue to loudly proclaim otherwise.

Pre-order Shawn Lawrence Otto's important new book: Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America, "a gripping analysis of America's anti-science crisis." --Starred Kirkus Review. An "incredible book" -- Starred Publishers Weekly review. Like him on Facebook.