This commentary originally appeared in The Washington Examiner on March 5, 2017.
When the Environmental Protection Agency speaks, the country is expected to listen. But if the EPA is not entirely forthcoming about the source and basis of their regulations, aren't we bound to respond with just a bit of skepticism?
The House Committee on Science and Technology met recently to discuss a dangerous lack of transparency in the EPA. In the testimony received, the committee focused on three main issues. First, the EPA has the discretion to decide how much weight should be given to different studies. Second, the EPA does not currently release all the studies it uses as the basis for regulation. Finally, members of the EPA choose members of the Scientific Advisory Board, which advises the EPA on scientific studies and regulations.
The purpose of the EPA is to safeguard the environment and individuals' health. However, to do so there must be a standardized process and unfettered public access to evidence used in creating regulation. The selection of advisory boards must be structured so that there will be a diversity of viewpoints in these groups. The committee rightly recommended that the EPA reveal the how, the why, and the who of their policies.
There is clear potential for bias in the EPA's current procedure for evaluating scientific studies. There is, in fact, no standardized procedure at all. In crafting regulation, the EPA chooses the studies it will consider and how to evaluate those studies. Though it may consider opposing scientific evidence, there is no explicit standard for deciding which studies are more or less valuable. The EPA has absolute discretion in determining which studies are valid and which are not. The EPA also decides whether one study can serve as the basis for new regulation while a study that reached a contrary conclusion may be dismissed. The committee's suggestion of an overhaul of the evaluative procedure would encourage the use of good science while also reducing the effect of bias on evaluation.
Bias within the EPA can also be obscured through the use of scientific studies that the EPA chooses not to publish. For the public to make an informed decision as to whether regulations are justified, there must be access to the studies on which the EPA relies. Currently, the EPA is not required to publish the studies that it uses to craft regulation. Evaluating whether the EPA is staying true to its mission can only be determined if all the facts are available.
Even more concerning, the very system through which the EPA confirms that evidence is sound and regulation is effective perpetuates bias. The EPA chooses the members of the Scientific Advisory Board. As it stands, the advisory process is stacked to perpetuate the EPA's current position, with the SBA consistently rubber-stamping regulations. The committee suggested electing members of the board or placing time limits on how long a member may serve. One thing is clear: The EPA must develop a selection process that increases viewpoint diversity on the board.
An echo chamber cannot create a well-reasoned position, and without thorough and objective review of all available evidence, the EPA cannot best meet its protective goals. Recently confirmed EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has pledged to respect the rule of law and limitations on EPA authority during his tenure.
The solutions offered in the Science and Technology Committee's meeting are consistency, transparency, and objective evaluation. Enacting these solutions would allow Pruitt to make a reasoned determination of whether regulations are lawful. If we don't know how evidence is chosen, and we don't know the scientific basis of regulation, and we don't know who is deciding whether regulation is appropriate, the public can have little confidence in the future that the EPA will respect the rule of law in seeking to protect the environment, rather than merely advance partisan agenda.