“Smog Rules” — Obama, scientific integrity, and environmental policy


In his article “Smog Rules” in the current issue of Index on Censorship, CSW director Rick Piltz writes about President Obama, science integrity, and environmental policy. There remain significant questions about the strength and limits of Obama’s commitment to scientific integrity, especially in cases when the science might be inconvenient for policymaking and political messaging. ‘The lamentable truth,’ said Nature in a 15 September editorial on how science and the environment appear to be taking a back seat in Obama’s campaign for re-election, ‘is that in the world of US politics, environmental protection is still debated as if it were an optional and expensive accessory to modern living. In the process, science is set aside.’

Index on Censorship is Britain’s leading organization promoting freedom of expression. The IOC website provides up-to-the-minute news and information on free expression from around the world. A wide-ranging program of events and projects puts their causes into action. The award-winning quarterly magazine Index on Censorship shines a light on these vital issues.

The new, just-published issue of Index on Censorship, titled ‘Dark Matter’,  explores science and censorship. It includes the following article (photos added separately by CSW):


by Rick Piltz

Is President Obama putting corporate interests ahead of those of the planet? Rick Piltz reports on a retreat from good intentions.

Very early in his presidency, in March 2009, President Obama made a strong statement to the federal agencies about the need to protect scientific integrity in government. This was in welcome contrast with, and surely in part a response to, the political interference that federal scientists and science communication suffered under the previous administration. But has Obama made good on his commitment?

In the arena of climate science and policy, the government of George W Bush engaged in avoidance, misrepresentation and censorship of com¬munication about global warming, its causes and implications – well documented in investigations by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Government Accountability Project. While no comparably intensive investigations have been carried out during the past three years, the widespread chilling effect on federal climate science communication does not appear to have continued under Obama.

In contrast with the situation under Bush, the Obama administration’s position on climate change is not in conflict with the overall message of climate science, as articulated in the conclusions of the scientific assessments by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and reports by the National Academy of Sciences. Leading administration officials, including sci¬ence adviser John Holdren, Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, scientists all, have spoken about climate change and the need for a strong climate policy.

At the same time, we have seen much of the Republican Party in denial about the reality, or at least the seriousness, of human-caused global warming and of the importance of taking action to mitigate or adapt to climate change. The campaign of climate change disinformation, developed during the past two decades by anti-regulatory corporate interests and ‘free market’ policy groups, has been embraced by the party’s right-wing base and has become something of a litmus test for support for Republican congressional candidates, and now for those jostling for the party’s presidential nomination in 2012.

During 2011, the Republicans in the House of Representatives held a series of hearings and staged a series of votes that amounted to a kind of declaration of war on the climate science community. They approved legislation, thus far blocked in the Senate, seeking to prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from promulgating science-based regulation of green¬house gases as a threat to public health and welfare. One vote explicitly rejected language that would have acknowledged the scientific conclusion that human activity is changing the global climate.

Another vote would have eliminated US funding for the IPCC assessments. The science journal Nature editorialised on 16 March: ‘It is hard to escape the conclusion that the US Congress has entered the intellectual wilderness, a sad state of affairs in a country that has led the world in many scientific arenas for so long.’

So the Obama administration has managed to look rather good in comparison, simply by not joining in the rejection of climate science and attacks on the integrity of leading climate scientists. But the measure of the admin¬istration’s performance should involve more than whether it has cleared this very low bar. Obama created high expectations, and the public interest calls for them to be met. In these terms, there remain significant unanswered questions about the strength and limits of federal scientific integrity policy, especially in cases when the science might be inconvenient for policy-making and political messaging.

In his March 2009 memorandum on scientific integrity, Obama directed his White House science adviser, John Holdren, to consult with the heads of executive departments and agencies and gave him four months, to July, to make recommendations for presidential action to guarantee scientific integrity and the integrity of the relationship between science and policy-making throughout the federal government. However, the July deadline passed, and a process internal to the administration continued for another 17 months. Holdren, a Harvard University professor and now director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), finally issued another statement to the agencies in December 2010.

Just four pages long, it recommended a general framework for the development of scientific integrity policies on an agency-by-agency basis. It contained no recommendations for presidential action and put forward no deadlines. By August 2011, of 19 relevant agencies, only five had submitted completed policy statements, and another 14 had submitted drafts that were in various stages. Most of the draft policies were not made available for public review and comment. Thus the process dragged on.

In the handful of cases in which the agencies’ scientific integrity policies were available for review, there tended to be all-too-evident shortcomings in some key areas. Typically, they did not really ensure that federal scientists would be protected from interference by political appointees and supervisors. Media policies did not fully remove political barriers, actual and perceived, to freedom of communication between scientists and journalists and the dissemination of scientific information to the public. Policies lacked explicit whistleblower protections and failed to specify procedural safeguards to protect agency scientists and other employees who report scientific misconduct or political interference with research. The process of developing and implementing the policies lacked transparency and accountability.

A survey of journalists reported in the September/October 2011 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, and a subsequent discussion by a cross-section of science journalists held at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, revealed that reporters still face unresponsive agency public information offices, intrusive monitoring of interviews with government scientists and long delays in the processing of requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Why do these problems persist, and why has it taken years for the federal agencies to adopt scientific integrity policies? Granted, the agencies faced the challenge of developing new policy to specify the terms of ‘scientific integrity’ within the complex federal arena. But it appeared that political factors came into play to delay and weaken the effort. Where was the obstruction located? The most likely explanation lay not in the OSTP but in a combination of bureaucratic foot-dragging by agency officials reluctant to commit to greater openness and transparency and the controlling hand of the powerful White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

A very limited set of documents released in response to a FOIA lawsuit filed by the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, seeking to shed light on the reasons for the delay, suggested that OMB had approval authority over the guidelines and was using it to delay and constrain the process. OMB not only controls agency budgets, it also exercises authority given to it by successive presidents to approve, disapprove and shape proposed new federal regulations, including sci¬ence-based regulations, and has extensive authority over federal collection and dissemination of information. OMB, while not having appreciable in-house scientific expertise, in effect exercises considerable authority over the use of science in policy-making. As environmental journalist Joseph A Davis has noted: ‘For decades, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, OMB has held and used the authority to overrule sci¬entific findings and set agency regulations from the White House, based on secret meetings with industry groups that contribute major money to presidential campaigns.’ If an administration finds science to be a potential impediment to a politically preferred course of action, there are ways to get around it.

Surviving in the Arctic (photo: U.S. Geological Survey)

On 18 July 2011, the Department of the Interior suspended federal wild¬life biologist Charles Monnett, whose 2006 report on sightings of drowned polar bears in Arctic waters, published in the journal Polar Biology, had been given prominent attention, including in Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth. Dr Monnett, a career scientist in the department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, was informed that he was under investigation for ‘integrity issues’.

Investigators seized his computer hard drive and notebooks and he was grilled at length on his 2006 report by his department’s inspector general. Monnett’s report was the first time scientists had suggested a con¬nection between the melting of sea ice and an increased risk of polar bear mortality. Polar bears depend on sea ice for their survival, and receding ice requires adult bears and cubs to swim greater distances. After a thorough scientific review of many studies, in 2008 the polar bear was formally listed by the Interior Department as ‘threatened’ under the terms of the Endangered Species Act, based on the projected disappearance of its sea-ice habitat during the next few decades under conditions of global warming.

Monnett co-ordinated a $50m portfolio of research supported by his agency on Arctic wildlife and ecology. His investigators raised ques¬tions about alleged irregularities in connection with the funding of a joint US-Canadian study of polar bear population movements in response to changing ice conditions. Inexplicably, the researchers in that study were hit with a temporary stop-work order on 13 July 2011, a few days before Monnett was suspended.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (Peer) represented and vigorously defended Monnett against what it referred to as harassment based on ‘a mixture of false assumptions, misinformation and some just plain nutty notions’. Peer’s executive director questioned Monnett being ‘suspended just now as an arm of the Interior Department is getting ready to make its decision on offshore drilling in the Arctic seas’. Peer filed a for¬mal scientific misconduct complaint against Interior Department officials. Greenpeace and the Centre for Biological Diversity also raised with the White House and the Interior Department the issue of whether the Monnett case violated the terms of his department’s new scientific integrity policy to pro¬tect scientists from political interference. Monnett was reported as saying in an interview transcript that his superiors ‘don’t want any impediment to, you know, what they view as their mission, which is to, you know, drill wells up there’ and ‘put areas into production’.

The Monnett case appeared to collapse and he returned to work on 26 August, after six weeks on leave. His bureau was informed that its top officials, including the director, an Obama appointee, were themselves being investigated by Interior’s Scientific Integrity Officer, following Peer’s scientific misconduct complaint. This suggests that formal scientific integrity policy, at least when combined with public interest pressure and bad publicity, can be used to push back on political interference with research.

On the other hand, while Monnett was under suspension, the Interior Department conditionally approved Royal Dutch Shell’s application to begin exploring for oil in the Arctic Ocean in the summer of 2012. This signalled that the administration had decided to resume support for offshore drilling under potentially very hazardous conditions, which had been put on hold following the disastrous BP Deepwater Horizon oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. In what has been termed an ‘approve-then-verify’ approach to exploration plans, the government appeared to accept Shell’s claim that it could recover 90 per cent of any oil in freezing Arctic waters after a blowout, which could potentially continue uncontrolled for many months.

BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig ablaze (Photo: U.S. Coast Guard)

Is drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean another disaster waiting to happen? Does the decision to begin permitting offshore drilling in the Arctic simply establish a fait accompli vis-à-vis unresolved scientific concerns about envi¬ronmental impacts – i.e. science not censored but rather set aside, in order to expedite production and fend off industry complaints about environmental reviews?

Blocking the smog
rule may set a
dangerous precedent

On 2 September 2011, Obama rejected a proposed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation under the Clean Air Act that would have set a scientifically-based health standard requiring substantial reductions in emissions of smog-causing pollutants. The new rule, following the recom¬mendations of EPA science advisers, would have strengthened a weaker standard set at the end of the Bush administration. Ground-level ozone pollution, or smog, can cause lung damage, breathing difficulties and heart problems. The EPA’s own analysis had found that the health benefits of the proposed new standard would outweigh industry’s regulatory compliance costs. EPA administrator Lisa Jackson had made pushing through a tough new clean air standard for ozone one of the key initiatives of her tenure. That initiative is now on hold until after the 2012 presidential election.

Notwithstanding the Clean Air Act requirement that the EPA set a health and science-based standard, with economic costs to be considered only at the stage of state-level implementation plans, the White House deci¬sion to direct the EPA to pull down its smog rule did not pretend to be based on science. In fact, it flew in the face of the scientific evidence on the health effects of ozone pollution. Rather, Obama sided with Republican and industry complaints that the smog rule would impose a costly regulatory burden and hinder job creation under conditions of high unemployment and a shaky economic recovery. Thus, he capitulated to the ‘environment versus jobs’ framing, lending legitimacy to the view that pits the economy against public health and environmental protection. The president of the American Petroleum Institute, the chief lobbying arm of the US oil industry, praised the decision.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the Office of Management and Budget regulatory czar Cass Sunstein and White House Chief of Staff William Daley had teamed up to kill the smog rule. A record of meetings on the OMB website reveals that, on 16 August 2011, Sunstein, Daley and other White House officials met with representatives of the US Chamber of Commerce, the American Chemistry Council, the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association, the American Petroleum Institute, the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Forest and Paper Association and the Business Roundtable to discuss reconsideration of the ozone air quality standard – just 17 days before Obama rejected the new rule. While the Clean Air Act assigns statutory authority to promulgate air quality standards to the EPA – not to the OMB or White House political staff – the EPA was clearly outgunned in this company. While EPA administrator Jackson would be considered a hero by many environmentalists if she were to defy the White House, or resign in protest, US politics has no real tradition of principled and outspoken resigna¬tions by cabinet officials.

An anti-regulatory agenda that is always present is being pushed in effect to take advantage of a president who has been all-too-willing to accommodate corporate pressure. The smog rule is one of several new regulations pulled back by the administration after corporate interests complained they would hinder job creation. Congressional Republicans have been emboldened to make a radical demand for a moratorium on all federal regulations.

The decision to block the smog rule may set a dangerous precedent for other environmental policy decisions with a significant scientific component, including decisions relevant to climate change and energy development. For example, what will happen to the EPA’s forthcoming rulemaking on reducing carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants – scheduled to be made final in 2012 – in the heat of the election campaign?

The EPA announced in September that it would not meet a 30 September deadline for submitting the proposed power plant rule, currently under development, for consideration by OMB – where it could be weakened and further delayed, perhaps until after the next election.

Meanwhile, the administration moves ahead with a likely presidential decision to approve construction of the proposed 1700-mile Keystone XL pipeline, designed to carry Canadian tar sands oil from Alberta to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast. Will Obama heed the letter sent to him by James Hansen and other leading climate scientists, which said: ‘Adding [the tar sands] on top of conventional fossil fuels will leave our children and grandchildren a climate system with consequences that are out of their control. . . . [W]e can say categorically that [the pipeline is] not only not in the national interest, it’s also not in the planet’s best interest.’

Climate scientists continue to publish their research and communicate their findings, though they now face the prospect of substantial cuts to funding of research and observing systems in coming years under the demand for federal fiscal austerity. But in the collision between climate science and the realities of Washington politics, science gets muscled aside by the relentless pressure to expedite further development of fossil fuel resources regardless of environmental and scientific concerns – deepwater drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean, exploitation of the Canadian tar sands, mountaintop removal coal mining that has laid waste to large areas of Appalachia and hydraulic fracturing to develop natural gas from shale rock formations.

‘The lamentable truth,’ said Nature in a 15 September editorial on how science and the environment appear to be taking a back seat in Obama’s campaign for re-election, ‘is that in the world of US politics, environmental protection is still debated as if it were an optional and expensive accessory to modern living. In the process, science is set aside.’

©Rick Piltz
40(4): 120/129
DOI: 10.1177/0306422011428247

Rick Piltz is the director of Climate Science Watch, a public interest watchdog project in Washington, DC, sponsored by the Government Accountability Project.

Earlier posts:

“The Denial Machine” – Index on Censorship reviews the Bush record on climate science

In “The Denial Machine,” we reviewed eight years of the climate change disinformation campaign in the Bush administration for a special end-of-2008 issue of Index on Censorship devoted to examining the Bush legacy on human rights, secrecy, and censorship.

Gulf Coast health crisis in aftermath of BP oil blowout underscored at Keystone XL protest

Keystone XL tar sands pipeline demonstrators surround White House – pipeline permit decision blocked until 2013

Obama administration to expand offshore drilling in Alaska and Gulf of Mexico

Climate Science Watch comment to the State Department on the Keystone XL pipeline permit

Jim Hansen arrest at White House tar sands pipeline protest: “We had a dream”

“Whistleblowers Say Obama Fails to Save Scientists From Meddling”

NOAA draft scientific integrity policy a work in progress

Review comments on draft EPA Scientific Integrity Policy

Study showing higher birth defect rates adds another note of urgency to banning mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia

From the top of Blair Mountain: “It’s time to annihilate mountaintop removal”

On the White House Scientific Integrity guidelines – Part 1: OMB’s Secret ‘Openness’ Policy (first of  four-part series)


This entry was posted in Climate Science Watch, Obama Administration. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to “Smog Rules” — Obama, scientific integrity, and environmental policy

  1. Howard Christofersen, MD says:

    it is very sad and disappointing to see how the prospect of drilling for oil has interfered with honest scientific knowledge and recommendations

Comments are closed.