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Divided US politics interferes with environmental protection

The US Environmental Protection Agency has become vulnerable to allegations of outside interference, as latest climate scandal shows

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As much as 60% of EPA scientists are said to have experienced some kind of political interference in their scientific research (Image by Clayton Conn

The US Environmental Protection Agency, America’s chief environmental regulator, is currently embroiled in a major scandal. What that scandal is, and what it says about the way politics has infiltrated the agency’s dealings, depends entirely on one’s political orientation.

Are you a left-leaning sort who believes that human activity is causing climate change and that the EPA should be an assertive force in the protection of the environment? You are likely outraged over the attempt by conservative lawmakers, fossil-fuel industry groups and their allies to overturn the landmark 2007 Supreme Court ruling that allowed the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant.

Should they succeed in getting the court to take up the case, President Barack Obama’s climate change agenda will likely be dashed to pieces. Big business will be dictating environmental policy! The EPA is corrupted by politics!

Or are you a conservative, who is sceptical of the environmental lobby’s claims and sees the EPA as an obstacle to economic growth?

In that case, you might be furious over the results of a congressional investigation into the EPA’s Freedom of Information Act procedures. Research showed that the agency waived fees of up to thousands of dollars for environmental groups more than 90% of the time, while rejecting the fee waiver requests from about the same percentage of conservative groups.

A government agency is showing preferential treatment to certain groups because of their political orientation! The EPA is corrupted by politics!

There’s nothing new about allegations of political machinations behind the policy decisions of US regulatory agencies. But given the fraught political atmosphere surrounding the core tenets of the EPA’s mandate – science, climate change, regulation of the country’s most powerful industries – virtually every action the agency takes is dissected for signs of political bias.

At the April confirmation hearings for Gina McCarthy, Obama’s nominee to head the agency, congressmen grilled the air quality expert not on environmental policy but on allegations that the agency mishandled its information disclosure obligations. The hearings fueled perception of the EPA as less a disinterested regulator than a bellwether for Washington’s political mood.

Asked in 2011 if she felt there was “a war going on against the EPA”, former agency chief Lisa Jackson responded: “There are certainly some members of Congress who I think have come in with an agenda that includes this agency, and we hear words like scaling back and you even hear things like defunding.”

Jackson is not the only head of the agency to worry that political pressures were obstructing environmental goals. Christine Todd Whitman, the EPA administrator under Bush, said she was leaving for personal reasons when she resigned in 2003.

The real reason, she said in an interview with the Washington Post four years later, was persistent interference from Republican vice president Dick Cheney on environmental regulations that conflicted with business interests.

The politicisation of science

It is no wonder that the EPA is particularly susceptible to allegations of political interference. The agency’s decisions are based on science, and science itself has become politicised to a remarkable degree in the US in the last two decades.

Journalists and researchers began documenting the impact of political pressure on science during the Bush administration in the early 2000s, when reporters found that an unusually high number of former lobbyists and industry figures were being appointed to oversee the same industries they once profited from.

By 2008, as much as 60% of EPA scientists had experienced some kind of political interference in their scientific research, reported the Union of Concerned Scientists, a lobby group formed to combat the trend.

“Challenges from industry lobbyists and some political leaders to the agency’s decisions have too often led to the suppression and distortion of the scientific findings underlying those decisions — to the detriment of both science and the health of our nation,” the group wrote in a report.

The politicisation of science has filtered down from the government level into public opinion. Nowhere is this more starkly illustrated than in the climate change debate.

Democrats – the liberal US party – are three times more likely to believe in anthropogenic climate change as Republicans, the conservative one. The “facts” Americans receive about climate change come from politicians and media that are themselves increasingly polarised.

As a result, key discussions over greenhouse gas regulation are hijacked by attempts at political point-scoring.

While the often liberal pro-environment camp sees conservative attempts to thwart environmental regulation, conservatives see an agency hell-bent on advancing its agenda at the cost of the economy. Republican lawmakers have leapt upon administrative scandals like the fee waivers in order to discredit the agency as misguided and deceptive.

Climate change in the law courts

The US Chamber of Commerce, the states of Texas and Virginia and other groups have together filed nine separate petitions with the Supreme Court to review the EPA’s regulations on greenhouse gases.

“Everyone on [the environment] side or the industry side has the right to tell the EPA what we think the law says,” said David Doniger, senior attorney for environmental campaign group the Natural Resources Defense Council. “If you don’t like the answer the EPA comes to you can go to a court, but it’s usually quite hard to win.”

Some of the petitions specifically request the court to overturn Massachusetts v. EPA, the landmark 2007 case that gave the EPA the right to control greenhouse gases as pollutants.

If the court chooses not to revisit the case, then the EPA is legally required to issue rules on carbon emissions at existing power plants – a significant step toward controlling greenhouse gases in the US. Were the legislation to go back to court, it would likely crush any chance of meaningful climate change legislation during Obama’s presidency. Both sides feel this is their last chance.

Frustrating as environmentalists may find the current legal challenges, environmental protection is still far better off with the court system than without it, Doniger said. “To have the courts available to address gross legal and scientific abuses is a big plus in our system because it keeps the government honest.

“Sometimes you get bad decisions, but overall it’s a big plus.”

More recently, scientists reported that atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have surpassed 400 parts per million. It is a reminder that the planet will not wait for politics.

“We shouldn’t let a lot of hot air in Washington lead to dirty air in your hometown,” Jackson wrote in 2011. “Yet that’s the direction we’re headed if we continue to put politics ahead of our health and environmental protection.”

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