Photographer: Eddie Seal/ Bloomberg News

Chairman Smith reopens the debate on EPA’s science

February 7, 2017 Mark Drajem  & Ari Natter

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The House Science Committee is set to tackle issues both real and imagined as it examines EPA’s scientific work today. Under the purview of Chairman Lamar Smith, the committee had pounded the Obama administration with letters, subpoenas and questions at hearings over how it analyzed regulations or conducted scientific inquiries. Today it will discuss, “How to Make EPA Great Again.”

Here’s the thing: Science is hard, and science that’s being used to develop regulations that will have a major impact on people’s lives should be able to withstand all of the scrutiny it gets. With the Trump administration aiming to halt or roll back regulations, that’s going to be quite a bit in the coming years.

There are definitely some issues that could use an open and honest appraisal from the EPA’s science advisers, staff members and the public. It’s tricky work, but figuring out how much saving a life is worth in dollar terms sure looks ripe for a look. (To us, the way the value of a life is calculated by EPA, using the supposed dollar premium for more dangerous jobs, doesn’t add up.)

Also, Kimberly White from the American Chemistry Council will argue at the hearing today that the agency needs a better framework to perform risk assessments for chemicals. EPA now interprets the law “as requiring the Agency to evaluate all conditions of use of a chemical, regardless of how small, in the risk evaluation,” she will say.

Jeff Holmstead from Bracewell, who is also testifying today, raised with us the issue of how benefits are calculated. When EPA issues a regulation, say for mercury from power plants, it also counts as co-benefits the reductions in particulate matter that would result. Since PM2.5 is seen as so dangerous by scientists, these impacts are calculated to be quite large. But a recent report from NERA argues that EPA is counting benefits from reductions in PM that take place below the level it had already established as being protective of human health with an adequate margin of safety. (NERA didn’t say EPA is double counting the benefits, as some industry groups had argued.)

Holmstead writes in an e-mail:

“Their rationale is that there is very limited information about health effects when PM2.5 is much below 12, so they couldn’t justify setting the NAAQS below 12. On the other hand, they assume that the public health benefits of going from 6 to 5 are just the same as going from 13 to 12 (or 20 to 19). A lot of serious researchers are very skeptical of these assumptions.”

But Jack Lienke of New York University’s Institute for Policy Integrity says EPA does use a “log-linear” model, which reflects smaller health gains from reductions at lower concentrations. Its model is based on peer-reviewed studies and has been reviewed by the agency’s independent Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, he said.

(It’s too bad EPA’s science advisers weren’t invited to the hearing to address this point. Seems important.)

But — there is always a but — not all inquiry into science is so clear.

Chairman Smith, Myron Ebell (remember him?!) and JunkScience author Steve Milloy have not let up about getting two data sets behind landmark air-pollution studies, the Harvard Six Cities studies and the one using data from the American Cancer Society. These two studies are the primary targets of one bill being considered today, the Secret Science Reform Act.

Milloy told us that the data has never been publicly available, and so no one has ever been able to fact check the work. “If they were well-meaning, they would give up this data,” he said in an interview.

Sure, in general, the data deserves a second look. (In this case, the study was re-evaluated by the Health Effects Institute and it held up.) But at some point, it’s time to move on. It’s been more than 20 years since the Harvard Six Cities study was published, and the American Cancer Society one followed close behind. Dozens of related works of scholarship have been done in this same field. There have been twists and turns along the way, as best we can tell, but the main findings have held up in other works. (Milloy disputes this.)

Instead of re-litigating these old studies, it’s time to analyze new data sets, and see if they bolster or undercut these landmark findings. It’s not like there is a secret lab with the only Americans exposed to air pollution in it. Just head to Buffalo or Baltimore and dig up the health records.

In short:

  • More science? Yes.
  • Open data? Yes.
  • Is this something both parties should agree on? Yes.
  • Will they? We’ll find out at 11 a.m. this morning.

One last note, Milloy has tapped California mortality data and worked with other researchers to build a dataset on the issue. The finding: They “found little evidence for association between air quality and acute deaths.”

For a 2013 story on the Harvard health study and congressional queries, click here.

More Science

Smith’s longstanding fight with NOAA over its 2015 study finding no pause in global warming is, well, heating up. A retired federal scientists is criticizing the scientists who issued the finding, saying they weren’t vigilant enough about protecting their data.

Read John Bates argument here. And the counterpoint here.

The Trump Tax

For months, we’ve been warning that Donald Trump may not be the godsend to the oil, mining and related industries that he might seem at first blush. To take an obvious example, a 20% border tax may help drillers, but won’t help refiners. Our colleague Matt Levine tackles this issue more generally in the latest Bloomberg BusinessWeek:

Many people in the business and financial and technology communities listened to what Trump said and cheerily assumed he’d do something completely different. Sure, he talked about restricting trade and banning Muslim immigrants, but what they heard was that he’d enact “sensible immigration policy” and pro-growth trade agreements, reduce taxes, cut back regulation, and generally improve conditions for business….

Everything Trump literally said is coming literally true; everything the serious people heard remains an unserious hope. Businesses may eventually get the tax and regulatory reform they wanted, but it’s not a priority…

And, to borrow that overused phraseology, there’s one way this is literally true: Trump’s plan for a border tax could scuttle his stated goal to get the Keystone XL pipeline built, Peter Coy writes in the same issue:

If Congress passes the kind of border-adjusted tax system the president has occasionally expressed interest in, imported Canadian oil could be taxed and made significantly more expensive for American buyers relative to oil produced in the U.S. That alone could be enough to scuttle the entire project.

Of course, there are ways out of this trip. Could Trump exempt Canadian crude, giving it a leg up over Mexican imports? Yes, sure. Maybe. But that’s the point: Who can say?

Scott Pruitt Got 1,200 Questions

But not one concerned the fate of the ferroalloy industry. EPA issued a regulation in the waning days of the Obama administration clamping down on pollution from producers of manganese ferroalloys, which are used for the steel industry. Mike DeWine, Ohio’s AG, says there are only two remaining ferroalloy plants in the U.S., and Eramat, the plant in Marietta, Ohio, would need to cut production in half to comply with the regulation.

“Without Eramet’s supply, these steel companies will encounter unpredictable costs and their own production risks,” DeWine wrote in a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “Simply put, the harms introduced by this rulemaking are severe and far-reaching.”

Gorsuch and Chevron

Here’s another take on Neil Gorsuch and the implications of his views on Chevron Deference from Melissa Hart, a Democrat who urged Democrats to confirm him:

Gorsuch wrote separately to emphasize the importance of separation of powers and the central role of the judiciary to operate as a check on excessive executive power. We should all take some comfort in this recognition. This is most certainly a time when the judiciary will need to stand strong as a check against overreaching by the executive branch….

The Supreme Court applied a critical eye to President Barack Obama’s executive actions. It should apply the same rigorous analysis to Trump. The little evidence we have suggests that a Justice Gorsuch would not be cowed by the president who appointed him.

For a different story about Gorsuch and the EPA, read the New York Times story of his mother’s rocky tenure at the helm of the agency.

The Daily Don’t Miss

The House voted to end BLM’s venting and flaring rule last week; the Senate may follow on Friday. Lots of climate and clean air groups are aghast, which we would expect. Today a different group is set to express its alarm: Taxpayers for Commonsense. The group is set to discuss today how “this would prevent the current and future administrations from acting on the problem of wasted gas and lost revenue from federal lands.” The event is at 10 a.m. in Dirksen, Room 106.

Also Today

  • Vulture ranks every Super Bowl halftime show. It’s no surprise that Prince in the pouring rain is #1, but if we were to quibble we’d wonder how Coldplay/Beyonce got to #8 when the writers acknowledge that Coldplay’s performance was “Technicolor vomit.” Meanwhile, Springsteen was at #13? Come on, man.
  • Lincoln Policy Group announced that veteran Republican lobbyist and former Valero DC office head Craig Felner is joining the firm.
  • One agency that’s so far untouched by Donald Trump, according to Sam Pearson: the Chemical Safety Board.
  • The EPA didn’t check for more than a year an e-mail mailbox it created for the public to flag environmental racism issues, Rachel Leven reports.

Headlines from Bloomberg BNA

Energy and Climate Report: Highlights

State Environment Daily: Highlights

Inside the Beltway

An obscure Interior Department land-use planning rule wouldn’t affect most of the country, but that isn’t stopping the House from taking it on via the Congressional Review Act today.

Opponents of the Bureau of Land Management’s “Planning 2.0” rule say it would significantly reduce state’s role in managing the agency’s 250 million acres of public land, most of it in western states.

“Doing so opens the door to political gamesmanship and to special interests in Washington influencing decisions that affect Americans thousands of miles away,” Texas Republican Representative Louie Gohmert said during a hearing on the rule last year.

Map of the Day

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Outside the Beltway

As Demand Wanes, U.S. Coal’s Got a New Playbook to Dig Itself Out
On Friday, Ramaco Resources held the first U.S. coal initial public offering in two years, climbing 0.4 percent on its first day of trading. It came about earlier than Randall Atkins, the company’s chairman, planned, the result of a push by bankers to take advantage of a new momentum in the industry, he said.

“In September, my phone started burning up with all of these investment banks saying they were being besieged by all of their hedge fund and other investor clients trying to figure out some way to get in and play the metallurgical coal rise,” Randall Atkins said in a phone interview. “They said, ‘Look, please, on bended knee, would you let us try to get you public?’ “

U.S. Oil, Gas Prices Seen Falling With Trump ‘Energy Revolution’
President Trump’s vow to “unleash an energy revolution” by reversing regulations may send oil and natural-gas prices tumbling in 2018, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
Domestic oil and gas prices will likely suffer as the U.S. continues to increase its output, analysts including Francisco Blanch, head of commodities research, wrote in a note dated Feb. 3.

Energy Producers Urge Massachusetts to Revise Plan to Cut Greenhouse Gases
A Massachusetts proposal to require energy generators to limit their carbon emissions will backfire and cause a regional rise in greenhouse gases, energy producers say. The draft rules would cause energy producers to run at less than capacity to meet the stricter requirements, Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association, said. To continue meeting the high electricity demand in Massachusetts, the plants also would purchase power from neighboring states with less-stringent emissions rules, causing emissions to rise regionally, including in Massachusetts, Dolan said.