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Unsigned and Unlabeled Document on EPA’s Endangerment Finding from the Office of Management and Budget

Rating: Molehill

The Charge

An unlabeled document sent from the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in late April 2009 contained criticisms of the EPA's proposed finding that heat-trapping gases endanger public health and welfare; the document triggered a controversy over the scientific validity of the proposed finding.  The document is stamped "Deliberative—Attorney Client Privilege"1 and is comprised of various comments criticizing the finding.2 One comment reads that a decision to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act "is likely to have serious economic consequences for regulated entities throughout the U.S. economy, including small businesses and small communities."3 Lawmakers used the document to assert that the endangerment finding ignored scientific and economic information.4

Is it political interference in science?

No. As the origin of the comments was at first unknown, there was concern over what agency the comments came from and whether or not the OMB had attempted to influence the endangerment finding. OMB director Peter Orszag clarified that the document was a compilation of comments from different agencies and did not represent the views of the OMB or the administration.5 Orszag also described the OMB's role of compiling comments from agencies and forwarding them on to the EPA, regardless of the comments' merits. Apparently, some of the comments originated from an independent advocacy office in the Small Business Administration, from an official appointed by the Bush administration who came into office during the Clinton administration.6 There is no evidence of political interference in science in this case.

What is the best way to ensure scientific integrity?

The OMB document case emphasizes that partial transparency is inadequate.  While it is important that the document was made public online, the comments should have been labeled in full.  If the administration had acted with full and open transparency, much of the controversy could have been avoided. 

For more analysis of scientific integrity charges against the Obama administration, see the Mountain or Molehill feature.

1. "Deliberative—Attorney Client Privilege." Unsigned and unlabeled document on the EPA online docket, posted April 24.
2. Madia, M. 2009. "Climate Change Memo Controversy: Lessons Learned." OMB Watch, May 14.
3. "Deliberative—Attorney Client Privilege." Unsigned and unlabeled document on the EPA online docket, posted April 24.
4. Bravender, R. 2009. "Murky re-review process set stage for frenzy over OMB climate memo." The New York Times, May 14.
5. Orszag, P. 2009. "Clearing the Air." Office of Management and Budget, May 12.
6. Bravender, R. 2009.

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