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Congressional Republicans say bills are designed to make the process of writing EPA regulations, such as those covering drinking water, more transparent.

Congressional Republicans say bills are designed to make the process of writing EPA regulations, such as those covering drinking water, more transparent.

Daniel Parks/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Update: White House issues veto threat as House prepares to vote on EPA 'secret science' bills

The U.S. House of Representatives could vote as early as this week to approve two controversial, Republican-backed bills that would change how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses science and scientific advice to inform its policies. Many Democrats, scientific organizations, and environmental groups are pushing back, calling the bills thinly veiled attempts to weaken future regulations and favor industry. White House advisers today announced that they will recommend that President Barack Obama veto the bills if they reach his desk in their current form (statements here and here).

The bills, introduced by a mostly Republican cast of sponsors in both the House and the Senate, would require that EPA use only publicly available, reproducible data in writing regulations and seek to remake the membership and procedures of the agency’s science advisory panels. Supporters, including industry groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, argue that the legislation would improve the transparency and soundness of how EPA uses science, making regulations less costly and more effective.

Opponents, however, are calling the bills wolves in sheep’s clothing. “I cannot support legislation that makes it easier for industry to implement their destructive playbook, because risking the health of the American people is not a game that I’m willing to play,” said Representative Paul Tonko (D–NY) at a 25 February committee meeting on the bills.

Versions of both bills had been introduced in previous Congresses, and their revival was widely expected as part of Republicans’ continuing efforts to block key parts of Obama’s environmental agenda.

H.R. 1030, the EPA Secret Science Reform Act, was introduced in the House by Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), chair of the House science committee; a Senate companion is backed by Senator John Barrasso (R–WY). The bill would require the data EPA use for future regulations to be publicly available so that other scientists can independently analyze it. “The legislation provides an opportunity for the type of transparent and accountable government the American people want and deserve,” Smith said just before a 25 February committee vote to send the bill to the full House.

H.R. 1029, the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) Reform Act, meanwhile, was introduced in the House by representatives Frank Lucas (R–OK) and Collin Peterson (D–MN) and in the Senate by senators John Boozman (R–AR) and Joe Manchin (D–WV). The bill would make changes to the structure and procedures of the SAB, a federally chartered body of scientists and economists who review EPA risk assessments and policy documents and advise the agency on other science-related matters. The bill would improve scientific advice to EPA by “guaranteeing a well-balanced expert panel, increasing transparency, and encouraging public participation,” Lucas said before the committee also voted to send the bill to the full House.

Democrats, science groups, and public-interest groups have numerous concerns about both bills. The secret science bill, for example, would apparently bar EPA from using public health studies based on confidential patient information, wrote the American Statistical Association’s president, David Morganstein, in a 25 February letter to lawmakers. That would force the agency into “a choice … between maintaining data confidentiality and issuing needed regulations,” he wrote. Also, efforts to deidentify sensitive data before release—by stripping names and other information—aren’t fail-safe, Morganstein wrote.

But backers of the bill said those problems could be resolved. Study participants could sign waivers acknowledging that the raw data could become public, said Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R–CA). People concerned about their privacy could also decline to participate, he suggested. “Their specific participation isn’t necessary to have a successful research project,” he said at the committee meeting.

Democrats disagreed. Researchers’ findings could become skewed, because many potential participants—especially the sickest ones—would drop out. “You need a broad, unbiased sample in order to have valid results,” Representative Zoe Lofgren (D–CA) said at the meeting.

Democrats are further concerned about another provision, not included in earlier versions, that would give EPA only $1 million per year to implement the bill, which would entail, among other things, obtaining raw data from study authors. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office calculated that the bill would cost $250 million annually to implement early on, and that’s only if EPA were to halve the number of studies it used to 25,000 annually, said Representative Donna Edwards (D–MD).

“It forces the agency into an untenable position”—either ignore the bill’s requirements because of lack of funding or comply with them and stop using scientific studies almost entirely after the money runs out, Edwards said. “The majority is actually legislating failure,” she said.

Another provision in the advisory board legislation also troubles some outside groups. It would allow industry scientists greater leeway to join EPA panels, but bar academic scientists on the panels from talking about matters related to research they’re doing. The idea is to provide balance and prevent conflicts of interest, backers say. But the provision “turns the idea of conflict of interest on its head,” wrote Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a 25 February letter to lawmakers.  Even though the bill contains new language that lets scientists talk about their research if their expertise is externally peer reviewed and publicly disclosed, Rosenberg worries that language is legally ambiguous, as scientists' work isn't limited to published research.

Another provision requiring advisory panels to respond to all public comments would encourage commenters to bombard panelists, preventing the panels from finishing their work, said Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), the top Democrat on the House science committee. “I assume that is the point of this legislation,” Johnson said.

Committee Republicans defeated a number of Democratic amendments to alter the bills before sending them to the full House, but approved one (by voice vote) from Representative Alan Grayson (D–FL) that would bar all lobbyists from serving on EPA advisory panels.

The full House is expected to approve the bills as early this week. The Senate’s course of action isn’t yet clear.

*Update, 4 March, 11:00 a.m.: This story has been updated to include the White House's veto threat, and to clarify a bill provision on academic members of advisory panels.