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White House Office Overrules Science and Procedures at the EPA

Under the Bush Administration, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB)—in particular its Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA)—greatly expanded its power over governmental regulations and issued sweeping procedural changes to control how science is used by federal agencies.  Combining these procedural changes with direct challenges to individual rules, this cabinet-level office within the executive branch has had a particular impact on the integrity of science at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).1

Challenging Individual Rules

Since the Reagan administration, the OMB has had the power to review, approve, and perform cost-benefit analyses on all government regulations.2  In recent years under the Bush administration, the OMB has stepped far beyond its role of reviewing policies; it has begun to review and criticize the scientific basis for EPA decisions.  OIRA, typically an office staffed with economists and policy analysts, hired a handful of scientists in 2003 in an effort to create in-house scientific expertise.3  The OMB has used this expanded scientific capacity to force modifications or withdrawals of many EPA rules, policies and procedures, including:

  • Formaldehyde Pollution from Plywood Plants:  In 2004, the OMB downplayed scientific studies linking formaldehyde with leukemia in order to facilitate approval of a new rule, conceived by the timber and chemical industries, which exempted more plywood plants from formaldehyde pollution regulation.4 (For more information, see: Plywood Rule Used Industry Funded Research, Ignored Independent Scientific Findings)
  • Particulate Matter Air Pollution:  The EPA incorporated "last minute opinions and edits" from OMB in its decision not to tighten the ambient air quality standard for fine particulate matter in 2006.  These edits sidestepped the peer review process and were disputed by the EPA's panel of independent scientific experts.  The incident marked the first time the EPA had overruled the recommendations of its expert panel regarding ambient air pollution standards.5  (For more information, see: EPA Air Pollution Decision Threatens Public Health)
  • Ozone Air Pollution: In 2007, OMB manipulated scientific knowledge about ozone-related mortality in an EPA assessment of the benefits of strengthening the ozone ambient air quality standard.6 Exposure to ground-level ozone, a component of smog, can cause and exacerbate a variety of respiratory health problems and can even lead to premature death.7  The White House further interfered by preventing the EPA from adopting a strong secondary standard intended to protect long-term public welfare, despite a clear consensus among EPA's staff and scientific advisors.8 (For more information, see: White House Sidelines Science in Regulating Ozone)
  • Climate Change Endangerment Finding: In 2007, the OMB refused to read or accept a report by the EPA that stated global warming would "endanger" the public; the report would have required regulation of greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.9  The EPA later released a watered down preliminary report that came to no conclusions, further delaying a decision on greenhouse gas emissions.10 (For more information, see: The EPA's Elusive Climate Change Engdangerment Report)

Sweeping Procedural Changes

The OMB has also attempted to expand its power by requiring federal agencies to follow overly-restrictive guidelines for certain types of scientific analysis.11 The following cases are examples of procedural changes that demonstrate or resulted in the increased power of the OMB:

  • Peer Review: In 2004, OMB released strict guidelines for how agencies should peer review their technical and scientific information.  The rules created an imbalance towards the selection of industry-funded peer reviewers, and scientists strongly objected to the changes.12 The new system was also more costly and time consuming than the peer review systems already in place at the EPA and other agencies. In response to criticism, the OMB modified the guidelines, but concerns remained. (For more information, see: Office Management and Budget (OMB) Proposed Changes to "Peer Review")
  • Risk Assessment: The OMB also attempted to implement a one-size-fits-all system for measuring risks to human health.13 The National Academy of Sciences described the draft guidance as "fundamentally flawed," as it deviated from established principles for evaluating risk and did not account for the diversity of decisions facing agencies like the EPA.14 (For more information, see: New White House Guidelines Fit into Broad Attack on Federal Protections)
  • Interagency Review of Toxics Database: In April 2008, the EPA announced that it would allow polluting federal agencies more control over the EPA's Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS),15 a publicly available database containing toxicology profiles of more than 500 chemicals.  The OMB was given a significantly increased role in the new process.16  Along with agencies such as the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (who may be responsible for the cleanup of a given chemical), the OMB had more control over which chemicals are reviewed and what additional studies should be included in the review.17  On May 21, 2009, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced changes to the IRIS review process,18 overturning much of the Bush administration process.19 (For more information, see: Integrity of Public Toxics Database Threatened by Interagency Review)
  • Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART): The OMB uses PART to rate the effectiveness of federal programs. PART is overly simplified and discriminates against scientific programs that do not have easily quantifiable short-term results.  As a result, OMB classified EPA research programs as "results not demonstrated," a categorization that can jeopardize a program's continued funding.20  (For more information, see: PART Backgrounder)
  • Executive Order 13422:  In 2007, President Bush's executive order increased OMB oversight by injecting more political appointees into agency rule-making and promoting free market concerns over the welfare of citizens.  It also crippled an agency's ability to issue guidance to the public by giving the OMB review powers over any guidance it deems economically "significant."21  President Obama rescinded executive order 13422 in January 2009 and initiated a process to craft a replacement.22  (For more information, see: Presidential mandate centralizes regulatory power, endangers citizens)

EPA Scientists Respond to OMB Interference

In the summer of 2007, the Union of Concerned Scientists conducted a survey of EPA scientists, asking for information regarding political interference in scientific work and the use of science in decision making. Nearly 100 EPA scientists directly referenced the OMB's adverse effect on the agency's scientific integrity.23 The following quotes are a few examples of scientists' responses to the question, "How could the integrity of scientific work produced by the EPA best be improved?":

  • "OMB and the White House have, in some cases, compromised the integrity of EPA rules and policies; their influence, largely hidden from the public and driven by industry lobbying, has decreased the stringency of proposed regulations for non-scientific, political reasons. Because the real reasons can't be stated, the regulations contain a scientific rationale with little or no merit."
  • "Get the White House, industry, and OMB out of what is supposed to be science-based decision making."
  • "The role of OMB in terms of policy review and coordination is a problem. Economists, or whatever they are, ‘playing' scientist and/or engineer is troublesome and a real annoyance. They lack the basic credentials to make scientific or engineering judgments."
  • "In this administration, self-censorship is almost as powerful as the political censorship.  Options that OMB or the White House wouldn't like aren't even put forward."
  • "OMB is increasingly interfering in earlier stages of projects (as opposed to review of draft documents and conclusions), sometimes insisting on methodologies that are less credible than those selected by EPA scientists."

To read the rest of the scientists' essay responses and to learn more about political interference at the EPA, see the 2008 investigation by Union of Concerned Scientists, Interference at the EPA: Science and Politics at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

1. Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). 2008. Interference at the EPA: Science and Politics at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
2. OMB Watch. 2007.
A Brief History of Administrative Government.
3. OMB Watch. 2003.
OMB expands influence over scientific decisions. May 28. Washington, DC.
4. Miller, A.C. and T. Hamburger.  2004. 
EPA relied on industry for plywood plant pollution rule.  Los Angeles Times. May 21.
5. Wilson, J. 2006.
EPA panel advises agency chief to think again. Los Angeles Times. February 4.
6. OMB Watch. 2007.
Polluted Logic: How EPA's ozone standard illustrates the flaws of cost-benefit analysis in regulatory decision making. December 5, Washington, DC.
7. Shprentz, D. 2007.
Top ten ozone studies: Public testimony on EPA's proposed revisions to the NationalAmbient Air Quality Standards for ozone. Philadelphia, August 30. Deborah Shprentz is a consultant to the American Lung Association.
8. Eilperin, J. 2008.
Ozone rules weakened at Bush's behest. Washington Post, March 14.
9. Barringer, F. 2008.
White House refused to open pollutants e-mail. New York Times, June 25.
10. Eilperin, J. 2008b.
EPA e-mail concluded global warming endangers public health, senator says. Washington Post, July 25. 
11. UCS. 2008.
Interference at the EPA.
12. Alberts, B. 2003.
Letter to John Graham, Comments from the National Academy of Science regarding OIRA's peer review guidelines. December 15.
13. OMB Watch. 2007. "
New White House guidelines fit into broad attack on federal protections." September 25.
14. National Research Council (NRC). 2007.
Scientific review of the proposed risk assessment bulletin from the Office of Management and Budget. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
15. EPA.
EPA's Integrated Risk Information System, Assessment Development Procedures.
16. U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, Committee on Science and Technology. 2009. "
Nipping IRIS in the Bud: Suppression of Environmental Science by the Bush Administration's Office of Management and Budget." June 11.
17. Union of Concerned Scientists. "
Integrity of Public Toxics Database threatened by Interagency Review."
18. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2009. "
EPA Announces New IRIS Assessment Development Process." May 21. 
19. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Center for Environmental Assessment. 2009. "
IRIS Process (2009 Update)." May.
20. OMB Watch. 2005. "
PART Backgrounder." April.
21. Copeland, C.W. 2007. "
Changes to the OMB regulatory review process by executive order 13422." Congressional Research Service. February 5.
22. Obama, B. 2009. Revocation of certain executive orders concerning regulatory planning and review. January 30. FR Doc. 2009-02486.
23. UCS. 2008.
Interference at the EPA.

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