In a report with wide-reaching political implications, U.S. EPA's inspector general has found that the scientific assessment backing U.S. EPA's finding that greenhouse gases are dangerous did not go through sufficient peer review for a document of its importance.
The new report, released today, examines only federal requirements for EPA's "technical support document" and not the accuracy of the scientific studies included within it. But its conclusions have nevertheless reinvigorated GOP criticism of EPA's endangerment finding, which enabled the agency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.
"This report confirms that the endangerment finding, the very foundation of President Obama's job-destroying regulatory agenda, was rushed, biased, and flawed," Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said in a statement. "It calls the scientific integrity of EPA's decision-making process into question and undermines the credibility of the endangerment finding."
Inhofe, the top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, called for "immediate hearings" on the issue, accusing EPA of circumventing its own rules that ensure impartiality. The committee's majority office did not immediately respond to a request for comment this morning.
According to the IG report, EPA failed to follow the Office of Management and Budget's peer review procedures for a "highly influential scientific assessment," which is defined as an assessment that could have an impact of more than $500 million in one year and is "novel, controversial, or precedent setting."
In particular, the document was reviewed by a 12-member panel that included an EPA employee, violating rules on neutrality. EPA also did not make the review results public, as required, or certify whether it complied with internal or OMB requirements.
In a statement, IG Arthur Elkins Jr. emphasized that his office "did not test the validity of the scientific or technical information used to support the endangerment finding."
"While it may be debatable what impact, if any, this had on EPA's finding, it is clear that EPA did not follow all required steps for a highly influential scientific assessment," he said. "We also noted that documentation of events and analyses could be improved."
But EPA and OMB officials say the document did not qualify as highly influential, since it merely compiled outside scientific assessments that had already undergone peer review. In their view, the assessment was a "reader-friendly" version of the underlying science.
IG auditors reject this stance; EPA, they write, "had to weigh the conclusions and information in those assessments in deciding which information to present."
"In our opinion, the [technical support document] met the definition of a scientific assessment in that it evaluated a body of scientific knowledge and synthesized multiple factual inputs," they wrote. "While we agree that the primary information EPA relied upon were scientific assessments, these assessments were voluminous and numerous."
Environmentalists and climate scientists said today that the IG had missed the point completely: that the technical support document was not a new scientific assessment with new findings deserving of extra layers of review, but a summary of the established scientific findings that have already been thoroughly vetted.
"The key difference here was that they didn't create new science," said Francesca Grifo, a scientist who heads the Scientific Integrity Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "And typically, when you call something a highly influential scientific assessment, you actually added some other data, or used grey literature, or did something that hadn't already been fully reviewed."
"And they didn't in this case. Everything they used had been multiply peer-reviewed," she added.
Grifo noted that OMB told the IG that EPA had used its guidance correctly when deciding how much review to conduct prior to issuing the endangerment finding. The IG report, which was requested by Inhofe, amounts to "$300,000 that was spent on bureaucratic nonsense," she said.
"There is nothing in this report that would give any reason to think that another procedure would add value or find anything different," said David Doniger, policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate center.
Like Grifo, Doniger said that the "highly influential scientific assessments" in the case were actually the thousands of scientific reports and publications the TSD relied on, not the TSD itself. And those had all been thoroughly reviewed, he said, unlike many of the dissenting scholars that Inhofe relies on.
"I would ask what peer-review procedures Senator Inhofe uses before he posts things on his website," he said. "There's an absurdity here that deserves calling out."
Climate scientist Kevin Trenberth said the IG report made "a mountain out of a molehill."
"This has nothing to do with the science that justifies the endangerment finding and everything to do with politics," Trenberth said, adding that the IG's criticisms focused only on process and not the quality of science EPA is using. "There is nothing here that undermines the EPA's way forward."