Why Jurisdictions From Maine To California Are Questioning The EPA’s Definition Of Transparency

California. Delaware. The District of Columbia. Iowa. Maine. Minnesota. Pennsylvania. New York.

Those jurisdictions cover a fairly broad geographic swath of the United States, don’t they? Last week, they joined forces to send the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency a simple two paragraph letter that questioned its fundamental understanding of science.

What did the letter say? In effect, not much. It simply asked the EPA to consult with other organizations and gather feedback about its controversial transparency rule. According to this new policy, the Agency will only rely on the results of scientific studies if the researchers make their research data available to the public.

Who can argue with the principle of open and freely available information? In principle, no one can. But in practice, many types of data are kept confidential because of valid privacy concerns.

Consider, for instance, a researcher who collects Protected Health Information (PHI) from individuals who live in the vicinity of a toxic oil spill. Under federal law, such information cannot be shared with third parties, and certainly cannot be made public, without consent.

In such cases, many individuals are willing to share health information with private researchers. But they understandably balk at sharing their information with the public.

And what of all the older studies that researchers still rely upon to develop new research activities? If the scientists who produced those studies have destroyed the original data in accordance with standard confidentiality practices, will the Agency begin to act as if the older studies never existed?

Whether you support or oppose the transparency rule, it’s reasonable to ask how the Agency plans to address these pragmatic issues. Indeed, would any one be harmed if the Agency slows down, takes a deep breath, and gathers more feedback before it implements the rule?

Paris Unbound

Why would the United States, a nation that claims to be “the world’s leader in environmental protection,” withdraw from a global forum that would showcase its impressive success?

Is it because its President doesn’t really believe that the United States leads the world in environmental protection? That’s not a plausible explanation. President Trump made that statement very convincingly when he announced his decision to withdraw from the Paris Accord. He then elaborated by saying:

“The United States, under the Trump Administration, will continue to be the cleanest and most environmentally friendly country on Earth. We’ll be the cleanest. We’re going to have the cleanest air. We’re going to have the cleanest water. We will be environmentally friendly …”

So why would he withdraw? Is it because the Agreement would legally bind the United States to economically disadvantageous obligations? He did make those claims, but he also referred to those very constraints as non-binding in nature.

Oddly enough, “non-binding” wasn’t the word that Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah employed to explain why he supported President Trump’s withdrawal decision. To the contrary, Lee said that “… we can’t give excessive, unfettered power to a president to act alone, to bind an entire country to a set of principles, a set of rules that the president … makes.”

Lee was actually referring to former President Obama and not President Trump. He was arguing that Obama inappropriately signed the Paris agreement, and bound the United States to its terms, without the approval of the Republican Congress. According to Lee, “… we have to get back to the fact that this power, the power to enter into binding international agreements, this is a shared power.”

Clearly, there is a fundamental contradiction between Lee’s description of the Paris pact as binding and Trump’s description of it as non-binding. And making this contradiction even more confusing is the fact that the European Commission — which strongly supports the Paris Accord — also refers to it as a legally binding agreement.

So which is correct? Does the Paris agreement bind its signatory nations to its terms? If it does, then even a nation that considers itself “the world’s leader in environmental protection” may feel justified in withdrawing if those binding requirements are onerous in nature.

The answer to this question can be found in the European Commission’s description of the Agreement. Apparently, the Paris Accord binds all nations to set long-term goals, to report to each other on their progress, to strengthen their societies, and to acknowledge the need to cooperate with the international community. But it contains no verification, enforcement, or punishment mechanisms at all.

In other words, the Paris Accord only binds nations to act in good faith while attempting to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. It doesn’t otherwise bind any one to any particular course of action. That’s why many experts refer to each nation’s greenhouse gas reduction goal as a “… voluntary pledge to reduce emissions …”

With this in mind, let’s return to our central question. On PBS NewsHour, Senator Lee proudly promised that the United States “… will proceed … as a global leader in environmental regulation. We are a global leader in the rule of law. We have brought down emissions in this country through our legal system and through technological innovation.”

So why would America walk away from an international forum that would recognize its success? A pact that isn’t legally binding in any meaningful sense, other than the sense that it binds the United States to continue to try to maintain its position as a global leader?

If the true underlying rationale for withdrawal is not legally motivated, or economically motivated, or environmentally motivated, it may well be politically motivated. In other words, America’s toxic political system may be the driving force behind its President’s decision to “unbind” the nation from the non-binding Paris Accords.

Delete The Environment

Is it possible that we’re still debating the existence of climate change? Two months ago, President Trump’s Secretary of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared that:

“… measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact, so no, I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.”

Secretary Scott Pruitt continued:

“We need to continue the debate and continue the review and the analysis.”

But review and analysis require data. And last week, the EPA removed significant amounts of public data and scientific information from its own web site.

Why would Secretary Pruitt remove data from public view if he believes that we need to “continue the review and the analysis” of the information? According to an EPA spokesperson, the removal was needed to “eliminate confusion by removing outdated language.” And yet the spokesperson didn’t explain why the language of the data was “outdated.”

So why should we feel concern? Given that climate changes over time, scientists must analyze data that has been collected over many years in order to evaluate the effects of various environmental factors. Thus, it is difficult to understand how a set of data can itself become “outdated.”

To be sure, this is not to say that Secretary Pruitt is wrong. In fact, it is never wrong to question established scientific findings, or to call for more review and analysis.

But such activities are simply impossible to perform when information that resides in the public realm is removed from public access. So when our government “of the people, by the people, for the people” compiles data and publishes it on a public web site, perhaps we’d be better served if it simply leaves it there.