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House approves EPA 'secret science' bills despite White House veto threat

Defying a White House veto threat, the U.S. House of Representatives has approved two mostly Republican-backed bills that would change how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses scientific data and advice in writing its regulations. The bills, closely related to two measures that came up but died in previous Congresses, now go to the Senate. White House officials have already said that they would advise President Barack Obama to veto the bills, which have drawn opposition from science and environmental groups, if they arrive on his desk in their present form.

Today, the House voted 241 to 175, mostly along party lines, to approve H.R. 1030, the EPA Secret Science Reform Act. It would bar EPA from issuing regulations that draw on data that have not been made public in a way that allows independent scientists to analyze it.

Yesterday, the House approved, on a 236 to 181 vote, H.R. 1029, the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act. It would change the membership and procedural requirements for the agency’s federally chartered advisory panels of scientists and economists.

Backers have said the bills are necessary to make EPA’s regulatory processes more transparent and inclusive.

“Many Americans are unaware that some of the EPA’s most expensive and burdensome regulations, such as its proposed ozone rules, are based on data that not even the EPA has seen,” said Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), the head of the House science committee, in a statement today. The secret science bill, he stated, “ensures that the decisions that affect every American are based on independently-verified, unbiased scientific research, instead of on secret data that is hidden behind closed doors.”

“We aren't telling the Science Advisory Board what to say,” said Representative Kevin McCarthy (R–CA) during yesterday’s debate on the House floor. “We aren't telling the EPA what to do. But … true science demands clarity and impartiality. The Science Advisory Board lacks both, and that needs to change.”

But opponents say the measures are designed to hobble the agency and give regulated industries more influence and could force researchers to violate privacy rules.

“A great deal of important research, particularly related to public health, is based on sensitive personal information that [the secret science] bill would exclude from consideration,” said Representative Katherine Clark (D–MA) in a statement today. “This limit poses an impossible choice for the EPA: disregard critical research, even when it has been subject to rigorous evaluation and peer review, or violate the privacy of volunteers.”

“The titles and text of these bills are cleverly designed to conceal their purpose, which is to protect industry from any oversight and any limits on their ability to pollute,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a statement today. “House leaders and their allies in industry don’t like the answers science is giving—so they’ve written these bills to attack the process.”

Identical versions of the bills, which give Republicans another chance to draw a contrast with the Obama administration’s environmental policy, have been introduced in the Senate. It isn’t yet clear whether that body will vote on the bills. Because the White House has issued a veto threat, however, Senate backers will need 67 votes for the measures to become law—a very steep hill to climb.