“Vow of Silence” in Negotiating New Fuel Economy Standards

Rating: Molehill

The Charge

In May 2009, a New York Times article1 sparked a controversy over transparency in the Obama administration when it described private discussions between Mary Nichols, head of the California Air Resources Board, Carol M. Browner, Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change (the White House "Climate Czar"), and representatives from the auto industry during the development of a new national fuel economy standard.2 On May 19, 2009, President Obama announced the new standard, which would in effect raise the average fuel economy standard to 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016.3 Nichols was quoted in the New York Times article as saying that during negotiations, the participants "put nothing in writing, ever…That was one of the ways we made sure that everyone's ability to talk freely was protected."4

Senators questioned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Lisa Jackson about Browner's role in closed door meetings regarding the fuel economy standard and accused the Administration of allowing White House czars to run the government instead of agency heads approved by the Senate.5 The Senators and Representatives also stated that the secrecy associated with the meetings was unacceptable.6

Jackson defended White House actions by emphasizing that there needed to be a certain level of trust and secrecy so that stakeholders could speak freely at meetings.7 Jackson also pointed out that the decision needed White House coordination due to the many different stakeholders and agencies involved. In response to accusations that the EPA was not involved in the development of the new fuel economy standard and that Browner was too powerful compared to agency heads, Jackson asserted that the EPA was in fact involved in key parts of the negotiation process.8

Is it political interference in science?

No. The controversy regarding the national fuel economy standard is not a matter of scientific integrity; it is a controversy over the process of policy making. Although transparency is an integral component of good governance, the substance of pre-decisional deliberations is very often not made available to the public and is a long-established exemption from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. There is some need for closed door discussions when crafting policy, but the science behind policy decisions must always be disclosed and available to the public. While it is concerning that the EPA may not have been as involved in the process of developing the national fuel economy standard as it should have been, Administrator Jackson stated that the EPA was an active part of the process. Furthermore, there is no evidence of political interference in the science itself.

What is the best way to ensure scientific integrity?

The EPA should be an integral part of developing national environmental policy, and scientific information informing of affecting policy should be available to the public.

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

1. Sullivan, C. 2009. "Vow of silence key to White House-Calif. Fuel economy talks." The New York Times, May 20.
2. Ibid. 
3. The White House Office of the Press Secretary. 2009. "President Obama Announces National Fuel Efficiency Policy." May 19. Online at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/President-Obama-Announces-National-Fuel-Efficiency-Policy/.
4. Sullivan, C. 2009.
5. U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works. 2009. "Minority Newsletter."
6. Ibid.
7. U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works. 2009. "Full Committee and Subcommittee on Oversight joint hearing entitled, "Scientific Integrity and Transparency Reforms at the Environmental Protection Agency." Archived Webcast.
8. Ibid.