Science, or Science Fiction?

Commentary by Pete du Pont

Apparently living in its own surreal world, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed tightening the clean air standards for both particulate matter (soot and that sort of stuff) and ground level ozone (what we generally call smog). As I mentioned in last week's column, the proposed standards could wreak economic havoc while accomplishing only marginal progress in cleaning up the air - which is already a lot cleaner than it was 30 years ago.

However, many environmental zealots are determined to push through the tighter standards and EPA Administrator Carol Browner seems to be in agreement with them.

Trouble is, not only are both proposed standards potentially catastrophic to the economy, but they are also scientifically unsupported. When she submitted the rules for public comment, Ms. Browner said that the science supporting the EPA's decision to raise the clean air standards is indisputable and that the benefits of raising the standards will outweigh the costs. But the EPA's own Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee was split on what standards to set, if any. A majority of the committee thought that the current state of the science did not justify the EPA's proposed standards. And two days after Ms. Browner's announcement, the EPA acknowledged that the ozone standard will impose costs on the economy that far outweigh their societal benefits, including health benefits.

What kind of science is the EPA relying on? Secret research, that's what. Two Harvard researchers conducted studies that they say validate the need for the standards, but they won't release their data to anybody, not even the EPA. The researchers said their research - paid for by taxpayers - is proprietary and revealing their findings would only cause more controversy because industry shills would twist them unfairly. Their refusal is contemptuous of Congress and U.S. taxpayers and a breach of scientific research standards that require that scientific theories and research be tested by outside researchers for methodological or substantive flaws. But not to fear; Ms. Browner says she is comfortable with their work. (As in, I'm from the government and I'm here to help you?)

But just how comfortable? Representative Thomas Bliley, chairman of the House Commerce Committee, requested the Office of Management and Budget's (OMB) assessment of the regulations. The OMB's initial assessment called into question both the scientific and economic analyses performed by the EPA. The EPA asked the OMB to drop the negative assessment, and a sanitized version went to Bliley, who found out about it only after he pressed the OMB for further documentation. Critics of the EPA's rules see this as further evidence that the science behind the rules is faulty; otherwise, why would the EPA try to suppress the OMB's concern? The EPA claimed that the original assessment was not forwarded to Bliley inadvertently, but Bliley has rejected the explanation.

In case there's any doubt, consider the EPA's responsibility under the Small Business Regulatory Relief Act, passed by Congress last year. It requires every administrative agency to consider the effects on small businesses of any regulation under consideration and to detail any disproportionate impacts. EPA, however, refuses to do this for the clean air rules. Despite what the law says, contends the EPA, Congress didn't intend for agencies to have to consider the impact when rules are proposed, but only when they are actually implemented. Congress has publicly rejected this interpretation of the law but the EPA continues to maintain that it knows what Congress meant even if Congress doesn't.

The EPA has managed to elicit bipartisan opposition to its polluted approach to clean air. Such prominent Democrats as Georgia Governor Zell Miller, Representative John Dingle of Michigan, and Senator John Glenn of Ohio have joined a chorus of Republicans such as Representative Joe Barton of Texas, Governor George Voinovich of Ohio, and Senator John Chaffee of Rhode Island (one of the greenest members of Congress) in questioning the scientific evidence supporting the proposed standards.

Even within the Clinton administration, support for the proposed regulations is controversial and far from unanimous. The Office of Science and Technology, the Department of Transportation, the White House Council of Economic Advisors, and the Department of Treasury stand with the OMB in raising serious concerns in internal agency memos concerning the scientific and economic analyses used to support the new standards.

The EPA is a creature of Congress, which means Congress can rein it in if it has the will. Congress should do exactly that. The clean air proposals are bad politics, bad for the economy and based on bad science.