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A Choking Decision


Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows. . . .
— A. E. Housman,
To an Athlete Dying Young

With all the Environmental Protection Agency has been doing in the last few weeks it’s hard to believe its employees had time to enjoy Christmas or make plans for the New Year – there was so much to do in the old.

Last week this column pointed out that during the holiday season in 2006 the EPA. made it easier for companies to secretly release toxins into the air thus permitting communities to avoid the concerns and fears that would otherwise almost certainly follow news of the release. The change in the rules governing disclosure of the release of such substances only gained notoriety during the 2007 Christmas season. That was not the only December 2006 policy change whose fruits were plucked in December of 2007.

On December 7, 2006, Marcus Peacock, the Deputy Administrator of the EPA announced a new approach to making decisions that was known as “policy-relevant science.” According to the Union for Concerned Scientists here is how “policy-relevant science” works in practice. “[H]igh-level political appointees are involved (in setting National Ambient Air Quality Standards) right from the start, working with staff scientists to create a document containing ‘policy-relevant science’ that ‘reflect the agency’s views’ instead of the independent scientific paper that staff scientists have put together in the past.” In December 2007 we saw the results of the new process when California, a consistently rogue state when it comes to environmental matters, asked the EPA for permission to impose tougher emissions standards on the cars traveling its highways.

In 1970 Congress passed the Clean Air Act. As explained in the official summary of the act it is the “comprehensive federal law that regulates air emissions from area, stationary, and mobile sources . . . . The goal of the Act was to set and achieve National Ambient Air Quality Standards in every state by 1975.” One of the mobile sources the act regulates is the automobile. In the past some states, including California, have taken it upon themselves to come up with even stiffer regulations than those established by the EPA with respect to, among other things, the tailpipe emissions of automobiles. According to the Act that is permissible if the state applies for a waiver from the agency and the standards it seeks to impose are “at least as protective of health and welfare” as the federal standards. The act provides, however, that the waiver will be denied if the administrator finds that the determination of the state is arbitrary and capricious or the state has no need for the standards to “meet compelling and extraordinary conditions” or the proposed standards are not consistent with the purposes of the act.

Since the passage of the act, California has been given permission to regulate smog-forming pollutants 50 times. With respect to man’s best friend, the automobile, statistics show that 30 percent of the total U.S. creation of heat-trapping gases is attributable to motor vehicles. Under the energy bill signed by Mr. Bush in December 2007, the federal goal was to reduce those emissions by 40 percent by 2020. California applied for a waiver so that it could require automakers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2016. That’s where “policy-relevant science” entered the picture.

According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, an anonymous EPA staffer said the staff at the EPA believed the waiver should be granted. The staffer said: “California met every criteria. . . on the merits. The same criteria we have used for the last 40 years on all the other waivers. We told him [Stephen L. Johnson, E.P.A.adminstrator] that. All the briefings we have given him laid out the facts.” Unpersuaded by science, Mr. Johnson introduced policy into the equation and said California’s request did not “meet compelling and extraordinary conditions.” It was the first time that California had requested a waiver and been turned down and it is likely that the state will take the EPA to court. Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board said his decision showed “that this administration ignores the science and ignores the law to reach the politically convenient conclusion.” She was right. This was not Mr. Johnson’s first experience with ignoring good science in favor of making good policy.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, in 2005 Mr. Johnson overruled a “nearly-unanimous recommendation from scientific advisors that the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAASQS) for fine particulate matter be strengthened. Commenting on the ruling. The Union said: “This case is yet another example of where political appointees have seemingly misused science for political reasons.”

George Bush will be remembered for many bad things. Substituting political agenda for science is one of them.

Share  Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 12:52 AM | Permalink

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