EPA’s Endangerment Finding: Standing Tall

Last year, Senator James Inhofe, a staunch opponent of EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, asked the EPA’s Inspector General (IG) to investigate the agency’s endangerment finding related to climate change. The IG’s report was released earlier this week, and its first sentence reads, “EPA met statutory requirements for rulemaking and generally followed requirements and guidance related to ensuring the quality of the supporting technical information.” In his statement on the report, Senator Inhofe translated that to, “This report confirms that the endangerment finding is ….. rushed, biased, and flawed.”

It is important to understand what the IG’s report does and doesn’t say. It does not look at climate science itself or the substance behind EPA’s endangerment finding. In the IG's almost 100-page report, you won’t find any discussion of carbon dioxide emissions, climate sensitivity, model output, etc. It is all about process -- the process EPA used to prepare and review the technical support document for its endangerment finding.

So exactly what process fouls did EPA commit and how did they affect the outcome of the report? The IG criticizes EPA for not deeming the technical support document a “highly influential scientific assessment” and for not undertaking the procedural requirements set out in OMB guidance for such a document. Instead of undertaking its own assessment of the climate change literature, EPA determined that it would rely on the existing (and extensively peer reviewed) assessments performed by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, the U.S. National Research Council, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Because its document was essentially a summary of existing assessments, EPA argued that it was not conducting a scientific assessment and therefore was not subject to the process requirements for a “highly influential scientific assessment” in OMB guidance. And OMB agrees.

Putting aside the fact that OMB agrees with EPA’s call, it is still reasonable to ask what peer review process was used for the document. In preparing the technical support document, EPA organized a panel of 12 federal agency climate experts (including one from EPA) to review the document. The document also underwent extensive interagency and OMB review before being published in the Federal Register for public review in July 2008 as part of the agency’s Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. It was revised in response to public comments and reissued for a second round of public comments as part of the proposed endangerment finding in April 2009. The agency held public hearings on its proposed action and prepared 11 volumes of responses to public comments before issuing the final document and endangerment finding in December 2009.

The endangerment finding has been challenged in the courts, and they ultimately will decide its fate. Given the extensive body of peer reviewed scientific assessments that formed the basis for the finding and EPA’s thorough review process for the finding itself, it is highly unlikely that any such challenges will prevail.

Steve Seidel is Vice President for Policy Analysis