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Opinion

EPA should stop hiding the data used in making regulations

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Thousands of conservative political activists, officeholders, public relations operatives, celebrities, think tankers, and academics are assembled here this week for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. Among the issues that most intensely unite the various factions within the conservative galaxy is the use by liberals of global warming programs and policies as cover for the expansion of government power. All too often the science behind those efforts is inaccessible to the public and thus not subject to genuinely independent review and verification. So a key ingredient in stopping the global warming juggernaut in agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency is making scientific data publicly available.

Consider a 1999 EPA report purporting to show that the Clean Air Act would generate $170 billion in economic benefits in 2010. That at least sounded plausible. But EPA's numbers changed dramatically when the agency released its 2011 report on the purported economic benefits of the Clean Air Act. The EPA's new number was $2 trillion, an increase exceeding 1,000 percent. How did the Obama EPA come up with this number? Government officials used an economic model that, according to the scientists who wrote the study, was filled with "significant" and "major uncertainties." The researchers even admitted that because of their model's design flaws, "there is no way to validate" their findings. The agency refused to make their data available for outside review.

Such outlandish findings are not exceptions at the EPA, but the rule. A 2004 EPA staff report found that "since EPA is a health and environmental protective agency, EPA's policy is that risk assessments should not knowingly underestimate or grossly overestimate risks." Notice the two different standards. The EPA can never "knowingly" underestimate risk, but they are allowed to overestimate it as long as they don't do so "grossly." The results are increasingly costly regulations that do little to actually protect human health and well-being.

For example, the EPA recently issued new Utility Maximum Achievable Control Technology (Utility MACT) regulations for mercury that agency officials claim will produce $140 billion in annual economic benefits. But a quick review of the supporting documents shows that, at most, $6 million of the benefits will come from mercury reductions. The remaining $139,994,000,000 is attributed to benefits that will supposedly result from carbon dioxide reduction. On the flip side, EPA pegged compliance costs at $200 billion a year. That means the cost will exceed the benefits by $60 billion, as in $60,000,000,000. (A separate drafting error misstated a proposed emission standard by a factor of 1,000. Yet the rule is still scheduled to go into effect.)

One solution, suggested at a recent House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing, would be to require the EPA to make public all data used in formulating regulations. "When the EPA proposes a regulation based on science, it should name the papers it is depending on and it should make data sets used in those papers publicly available," Assistant Director for Bioinformatics at the National Institute of Statistical Sciences Stanley Young testified. "Claims are more likely to be valid and resulting policy sensible. Let normal science help in the vetting process. Make the data available." We agree. Since taxpayers are paying for it, they ought to be able to the price sticker.

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