This is going to be a long 2 years.
Over the last week, Congressional debate over the fate of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline has dominated the media. It’s an important story, and one that has lingered for years, but at the same time it was discussed and voted on, three more environment-related bills quietly passed the House. Combined, these three bills could conceivably have a greater impact than the Keystone pipeline (had it passed).
The bill that is potentially the most impactful, H.R. 1422 (formally known as the Science Advisory Board Reform Act), is officially a call for “transparency and accountability” within the EPA. It seeks to alter the makeup of the EPA’s official science advisory board. It will allow, for the first time, scientists and “industry experts” who work directly for companies subject to environmental regulation to serve on the advisory board. It also prohibits independent scientists from using the research in their specific field while advising the board.
Currently, of the 51 members of the SAB, three possess expertise and experience within industry. This law seeks to expand that number and allow actual industry scientists to advise on the industry that the EPA seeks to regulate and monitor.
Essentially, the GOP wants the foxes to guard the henhouse. The bill prevents scientists from providing advice in their actual field of work. Which means an expert on water pollution would not be allowed to advise the EPA on water pollution. At the same time, an employee or advisor for a chemical factory that is found polluting that same water will be allowed to advise the EPA on water pollution.
This is ridiculous, even by Republican standards (Republicans have standards?). The Republican-led House has spent many years attacking the EPA (and frequently attacking science in general), but this is one of the most blatant and corrupt attempts to fight against science and reason we’ve seen in quite a while.
What do the Republicans have to say about this? Why do they want to shift the structure of the SAB from independent and knowledgeable scientists to industry shills? Their claim is one of transparency. Republican Representative Michael Burgess of Texas stated that the current board “excludes industry experts, but not officials for environmental advocacy groups.” Utah Representative Chris Stewart (R) said, “All we’re asking is that there be some balance to those experts, and that there further be transparency and understanding of who was selected, why they were selected, and why others were excluded. We’re losing valuable insight and valuable guidance because we don’t include them in the process.”
So that’s their reasoning for the bill. Any ulterior motives? Any at all? Well, Representative Stewart has stated in the past that he doubts that humans have impacted climate change, and he has also advocate the elimination of the EPA itself. Nothing fishy there…
So, is this really about transparency? The bill prohibits SAB board members who are actual independent scientists from using and citing their own research because of “potential bias,” while corporate experts (with direct financial stakes in potential regulatory targets) are encouraged to advise the EPA.
Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA) said it best: “I get it, you don’t like science. And you don’t like science that interferes with the interests of your corporate clients. But we need science to protect public health and the environment.” Yep. That pretty much sums it up.
But wait, there’s more!
H.R. 1422 is just one of three bills designed to weaken and frustrate the Environmental Protection Agency. Another one, “The Secret Science Reform Act,” (H.R. 4012) is an attempt to further hamstring the EPA. This one (as pointed out by the Union of Concerned Scientists) creates a Catch-22. It requires the EPA to publicly release not only all studies related to a specific piece of regulation (they already do that), but also all raw data associated with each study. On the surface, that doesn’t sound too bad. The problem is that some of that raw data is legally blocked from release already. This raw data would include things like private medical information, industry data, trade secrets, trademarked information, and so on. Much of this information is currently used in research, just not released to the general public. So, raw data fitting the aforementioned description is not allowed to be used at all, since it can’t be publicly released.
What does all of the above mean? In the words of the Union of Concerned Scientists, “Demanding public release of full raw data the agency cannot legally disclose is simply a way to accuse the agency of hiding something when it has nothing to hide.”
Basically, under HR 4012, the EPA would not be allowed to adopt rules and regulations unless the research involved is 100% publicly released, however the vast majority of said rules involves some research with confidential information. Even if only 1% of the raw data is confidential, it would still be required to be released in order for a rule to go into effect. And if that data cannot be legally released… well, then there you have your Catch-22.
This law would prevent the EPA from doing, well, pretty much anything. If the bill could somehow escape the President’s veto (it likely won’t), then the EPA would be toothless. Well, even more than it already was.
Finally, the third bill in this trio of GOP anti-science and anti-reason attacks is a bill that would that would lead to fast-tracking of air permits for new factories and “energy-intensive projects.” Essentially, H.R. 4795 is a way to circumvent provisions in the Clean Air Act. It requires the EPA to publicly disclose how many permits it issues each year, as well as requires frequent reporting of information to Congress on how it can further expedite the permit process. It will allow new or expanding factories and power plants to rush the permit process and avoid complying with Clean Air Act requirements.
These three bills, particularly the first two (both of which have comfortably passed the House), are on the surface, attempts to improve “transparency” within the EPA. However, looking deeper reveals the truth. The Republican Party has long desired to defang, cripple, and eventually dissolve the EPA altogether. For so many Republican Congresspersons, the EPA just gets in the way of business. Climate change is either a fantasy or out of human control, according to these lawmakers, and other issues with pollution and environmental policy are either exaggerated or unimportant. We see this over and over, year after year. If there is government action or a government body available to do some environmental good, then it’s really just a tyrannical attempt to weaken business. There are many elected legislators who have basically stated as much. These are not people who’s minds are going to be easily changed. These are people who are going to try to pass laws like these over and over, until the President gives in or leaves office.
Fortunately, none of these three bills will likely be taken up by the Senate, and should they eventually reach the desk of the President, they will almost certainly be vetoed. They are a sign though, of how the next two years are going to go. Representative government is pretty much always under attack by … well, government representatives. The new Congress will be even more anti-government than the last, and especially anti-Obama. Expect to see two years of obstruction, silly legal maneuvers, and frequent attempts to cripple organizations which seek to watch over the public interest.
Education and awareness are key to combating this. We can’t allow the new Congress to intentionally sabotage the country out of pettiness, greed, and ideological rigidity. Two years can be a long time. But it can also be a long time to prepare for 2016. And that may be a good thing, too.