Thursday, July 05, 2018

Increasing EPA’s Scientific Transparency

Despite concerns, environmental agency’s “transparent science” proposed rule supports existing guidelines.

Contrary to what the strong reactions to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) “transparent science” proposal might suggest, the proposal is not as dramatic as either supporters or detractors imply. Its core principles actually conform with guidelines adopted by previous administrations.

Principle #1: EPA will clearly identify and make publicly available the studies and science relied on for significant regulatory actions. When the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) tallies up the estimated benefits of all federal regulations, EPA’s rules compose 65 percent to 80 percent of the total. Given the significance of these estimates, documenting and making available for public review the underlying science supporting them is essential, as previous administrations have acknowledged.

In 2009, President Barack Obama issued a memorandum to agencies that encouraged “transparency in the preparation, identification, and use of scientific and technological information in policymaking” and affirmed that “scientific and technological information…should ordinarily be made available to the public.” The Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) 2002 information quality guidelines directed agencies to make publicly available any relevant peer-reviewed studies that provide support for or contradict estimated effects.

Principle #2: EPA will make dose-response data and models underlying pivotal regulatory science publicly available for independent validation. The selection of the model used to estimate responses to exposures to contaminants can have significant impacts on estimated regulatory benefits. In 2007, OIRA and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) observed that a “high degree of transparency with respect to data, assumptions, and methods will increase the credibility of the risk analysis, and will allow interested individuals, internal and external to the agency, to understand better the technical basis of the analysis.”

In 2010, the OSTP directed agencies to develop policies to “facilitate the free flow of scientific and technical information, consistent with privacy and classification standards.” President Obama’s science advisor, John Holdren, instructed agencies to “expand and promote access to scientific and technological information”—including data and models underlying regulatory proposals—“by making it available online in open formats.”

EPA’s proposal to make the data and models underlying its pivotal regulatory science public also conforms with developments in scholarly journals. In 2013, for example, Nature took steps to ensure it reported key methodological details and prompted “authors to be transparent,” by, for example, including the raw data used in their studies. The journal Science has also focused “on making data more open, easier to access, more discoverable, and more thoroughly documented.”

EPA’s proposal states that it would consider information to be “‘publicly available in a manner sufficient for independent validation’ when it includes the information necessary for the public to understand, assess, and replicate findings.” This emphasis on replicability can encourage the process of challenge and validation that underscores the scientific method. The proposal conforms with OMB’s 2002 information quality guidelines, which require that significant information disseminated to the public be “‘capable of being substantially reproduced’…subject to an acceptable degree of imprecision.”

Principle #3: EPA will describe and document its assumptions and methods and show how sensitive modeled results are to those and alternative assumptions. In 2010, the OSTP directed agencies to communicate scientific and technological findings to the public “by including a clear explication of underlying assumptions; accurate contextualization of uncertainties; and a description of the probabilities associated with both optimistic and pessimistic projections, including best-case and worst-case scenarios where appropriate.”

Documentation and sensitivity analysis are important, because assumptions and judgments become embedded in predictions of health risk under different policy options and can—intentionally or not—influence the ultimate advice that researchers give to decision-makers and the public. Documenting these assumptions and estimating how predicted outcomes vary with alternative assumptions and judgments, could greatly improve the transparency and quality of EPA’s decisions. As a group of 19 regulatory analysis experts warned, “analyses that do not provide information on how sensitive the primary estimate is to assumptions, data, and models, and the range of outcomes possible under reasonable alternative analytic assumptions should raise questions.”

Principle #4: EPA will explicitly consider high-quality studies that offer new dose response information that may allow the agency to move away from default assumptions. In estimating adverse effects of exposure to many pollutants, EPA relies on a default linear, no-threshold dose-response model. Both theory and observation suggest that thresholds exist below which further reductions in exposure do not yield changes in mortality response. More accurate dose-response functions, however, are elusive. The default linear no-threshold assumption is convenient in that it allows EPA to estimate incremental health improvements in proportion to estimated reductions in exposure, but, if the assumption is inaccurate, it can lead to under- or over-estimates of risks at relevant exposure levels and to a misallocation of resources.

EPA’s proposed commitment to consider research that can help clarify the effect of low-dose exposure to key pollutants would not only improve short-term policy outcomes, but the commitment would also provide incentives for researchers to devote attention and resources to exploring and reducing this key uncertainty.

Principle #5: EPA will conduct independent peer review on all pivotal regulatory science used to support regulatory decisions. Peer review represents a fundamental component of the scientific process and EPA’s proposed approach conforms with OMB’s 2004 guidelines to all federal agencies and departments on using external peer review. When engaging experts in peer review, EPA should also consider the recommendations of recent interdisciplinary efforts in the context of scientific advisory panels. Such advisors can provide a necessary and valuable source of information and peer review for agency science, but care should be taken in both the composition of the panels and the charges they are given.

Principle #6: EPA will apply practices to protect privacy and confidentiality of information. EPA acknowledges concerns that increased transparency and public access to data may risk exposing confidential or private information. The agency, however, points to practices at other federal agencies and in scientific publishing that can ensure the protection of confidential or personally identifiable information. Depending on the situation and sensitivity of the information, data can be shared through a range of measures that allow access for replication and validation purposes while protecting personally identifiable information.

In conclusion, EPA’s proposed rule attempts to balance the competing public goals of ensuring policy decisions are transparent and based on the best available science, while protecting privacy and confidentiality. Building on existing guidelines, the rule includes reasonable principles that could improve the evidentiary basis for EPA’s regulatory policies and thus improve regulatory outcomes by targeting resources where the largest benefits can be achieved.

Constructive public comment on this proposal will be essential. As President Obama’s science advisor once observed, “Open communication among scientists and engineers, and between these experts and the public, accelerates scientific and technological advancement, strengthens the economy, educates the nation, and enhances democracy.”


Left-Wing Politicians Wage War on Plastic

After a ban on non-biodegradable utensils went into effect over the weekend in Seattle, local officials are advising food service businesses to “[s]top using plastic straws and plastic utensils.”

An ordinance pending before the New York City Council would make that city’s food service businesses the next front line in liberal politicians’ war on plastic straws.

For the last two months, the New York City Council has deliberated over a bill that would make it a civil offense for any food service provider in the city to offer customers straws or stirrers “made of plastic or any other non-biodegradable material.” If passed, violators could face a fine of $100 for their first peccadillo and steeper fines for repeat offenses.

Supporters of straw bans argue that serious global pollution problems demand drastic local solutions—particularly, the use of non-biodegradable straws. And they have a point: Plastic straws cannot be recycled and they can be blown into waterways.

Still, New York’s proposed law—and others like it—may be a problem in search of a solution.

It rides on a wave of plastic straw laws coming out of California cities: Malibu, Davis, and San Luis Obispo have each passed ordinances that restrict the distribution of plastic straws in restaurants.

A broader environmentalist campaign against plastic straws and stirrers reaches from Seattle to Miami Beach, Florida.

The rules in each city vary. Some, for example, carry criminal penalties, while others do not. Miami Beach targets straw delivery to beachgoers, while Seattle prohibits plastic straws, stirrers, and cocktail picks in restaurants throughout the city. The single purpose behind all of these rules, however, remains to combat pollution.

When Malibu officials proposed a plastic straw ban, they cited figures familiar to many an eco-justice warrior, claiming that “500 million single-use plastic straws are discarded per day across the nation.”

That figure was first recorded in 2011 by Milo Cress, at age 9, after he “asked manufacturers how many straws they produce a day.” Since 2011, that data has been featured by various entities ranging from Cress’ own nonprofit, Eco-Cycle, to the National Park Service.

To their credit, New York City Council members are not relying on data created by a 9-year-old. They are, however, relying on data that has no clear connection to New York.

City Council member Rafael Espinal explained: “It’s no secret that we have a plastic problem. It is estimated that there are 13 million metric tons of plastic clogging our oceans and that 100,000 marine creatures die from plastic entanglement every year.”

If New York City officials want to address global pollution, they have options other than passing a new law.

Of course, they can engage with volunteers to clean up local waterways that feed into the ocean. They can work with local businesses, who already have strong interests in keeping their facilities clean, to promote public awareness of the issue. But they need not try to legislate a solution, because there are already more littering laws than you can shake a straw at.

New York City sanitation regulations (§ 16-118) provide that “[n]o person shall litter … any … rubbish and refuse of any kind whatsoever, in or upon any street or public place … ,” subject to fines of $50 to $250 or more for repeat violations.

Surely, the phrase “of any kind whatsoever” is broad enough to cover plastic straws and stirrers, but there’s more.

The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation also provides that littering or misusing a waste receptacle, polluting park waterways, and “unlawful dumping” are all separate offenses.

And two separate New York state laws prohibit littering on highways and adjacent lands and on railway or subway tracks.

With all of those tools at their disposal, officials seem to have covered the waterfront. They should not pretend that another local law is necessary to reduce pollution. Outcomes from less ambitious policy experiments suggest as much.

For example, Illinois amended state law to specifically criminalize littering cigarette butts in 2014. However, in 2015, volunteers with the Alliance for the Great Lakes were still picking up more cigarette butts around Lake Michigan than any other trash item, just as they were before the new law took effect.

Taking a more direct approach, when New York’s subway system experienced an uptick in fires and floods due to litter buildup, officials doubled littering fines and transit authorities increased enforcement. If plastic straws and stirrers are now plaguing the Big Apple, city authorities can again emphasize enforcement of existing littering rules.

What the straw ban movement may need is a more localized analysis of the costs and benefits of proposed rules. By comparison, non-plastic alternatives often cost more, do not hold up as well to hot liquids, are not as widely available as plastic straws, and individuals with certain disabilities need straws to drink. Those factors may give rise to unintended consequences of plastic straw bans.

Research has also cast doubt on the benefits of straw bans. “Bans can play a role” in addressing ocean pollution, says oceanographer Kara Lavendar Law, but “[w]e are not going to solve the problem by banning straws.”

Scientists have estimated that all the plastic straws littering global coastlines represent less than 1 percent of the approximately 8 million tons of plastics that enter the oceans each year, while abandoned fishing equipment accounts for a much larger piece of the problem.

Straw bans may not offer much of a solution to those problems.

What they can do is compel covered restaurants to eat the cost of their existing plastic straw and stirrer inventory, purchase more expensive biodegradable straws and beverage stirrers and pass those costs on to customers, and open their businesses to bureaucrats checking inventory for non-biodegradable straws.

Never mind that restaurant workers must already comply with health codes covering, among other tasks, properly taking out the trash—which can be amended if necessary to address any blow away straw problems.

The nonprofit Riverkeeper, for its part, helps clean the Hudson River by promoting volunteer events like Riverkeeper Sweep. Established in 2011, the event has brought together 10,000 volunteers to collect 191 tons of waste.

Rather than waste tax dollars on straw sting operations, local officials should encourage private and nonprofit action and enforce the laws that are already on the books.

Another new law is not always the answer.


Rhode Island becomes first state to sue oil industry, seek damages for climate change

State Democrats follow lead of liberal enclaves in California

Rhode Island filed a landmark climate lawsuit Monday against the world’s largest petroleum companies, making the state the first to seek damages to cover what is says are costs of global warming in what had previously been a legal fight waged exclusively by liberal localities.

Gov. Gina Raimondo, joined by Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse — all Democrats — made the announcement at the Narragansett Sea Wall, part of a 400-mile coastline stretch that she said makes Rhode Island “more vulnerable to the effects of climate change than any other state.”

“For a very long time, there has been this perception that ‘Big Oil’ was too big to take on, but here we are — the smallest state — taking on some of the biggest corporate polluters in the world,” Mr. Kilmartin said in a statement. “The defendants have contributed greatly to the increased costs associated with climate change and, as such, should be held legally responsible for those damages.”

The state’s “public nuisance” claim, which seeks potentially billions of dollars to cover infrastructure costs associated with an anticipated sea level rise, follows more than a dozen similar lawsuits filed by progressive communities in coastal areas of California, New York and Washington, as well as in landlocked Colorado.

Rhode Island’s action raised speculation that other Democrat-led states may turn to the legal system to strike a blow against the oil and gas industry in the name of climate change, much as they did in 2016 with AGs United for Clean Power, a 17-state coalition that sought to pursue petroleum companies and their defenders.

That effort led to ongoing climate fraud investigations by New York and Massachusetts against Exxon Mobil as well as accusations that liberal state prosecutors had abused their public authority by targeting political foes.

Rhode Island’s move surprised industry onlookers in at least one respect: The lawsuit was filed a week after the strategy was dealt a major defeat when a federal judge threw out climate change complaints lodged by San Francisco and Oakland, California, against the five largest investor-owned oil companies.

U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup cited the “worldwide positives of the energy” versus the much-debated role of fossil fuels in causing global warming, concluding that the issue was best addressed by the executive branch, diplomatic community and Congress.

“Those dangers are worldwide. Their causes are worldwide. The benefits of fossil fuels are worldwide,” Judge Alsup said in his ruling. “The problem deserves a solution on a more vast scale than can be supplied by a district judge or jury in a public nuisance case.”

In March, another judge moved lawsuits filed by three California jurisdictions — San Mateo and Marin counties, and Imperial Beach — back to state court in what was seen as a victory for cities and counties seeking to have the cases reviewed under more favorable state law.

Other communities with pending climate lawsuits include New York City; Boulder, Colorado; King County, Washington; and in California, Santa Cruz and Richmond.

In its complaint, filed in state Superior Court, Rhode Island accused 21 fossil-fuel firms of knowingly contributing to climate change, resulting in “catastrophic consequences” for the state.

Those include “extreme weather” events such as Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and the 2010 spring flooding.

“As we face the threat of climate change, we need to build more resilient infrastructure and we need to hold the people and companies most responsible for climate change accountable,” said Ms. Raimondo. “Working families shouldn’t have to pay for the willful ignorance of big oil, big gas and big coal companies.”

Infrastructure in need of upgrades or repairs include the electric grid, bridges, roads, ports, wastewater management facilities, beaches and dams, the filing stated.

The companies named in the Rhode Island complaint include Chevron, Exxon Mobil, BP PLC, Shell, Citgo, ConocoPhillips, Marathon Oil and Royal Dutch Shell.

Lindsey de la Torre, executive director of the manufacturing accountability project at the National Association of Manufacturers, called for politicians and lawyers to “put an end to this frivolous litigation” and pointed out that no such climate nuisance claims have ever succeeded.

“Taxpayer resources should not be used for baseless lawsuits that are designed to enrich trial lawyers and grab headlines for politicians,” she said in a statement. “This abuse of our legal system does nothing to advance meaningful solutions, which manufacturers are focused on every day.”

Exxon Mobil has threatened to sue the California localities, pointing out that many of them failed to disclose the climate change threat in their bond offerings to investors.


Pope Francis Meets with Oil Execs

Pope Francis is meeting with executives from top oil companies and investment funds to discuss climate change. The Pope’s perspective will presumably reflect his 2015 encyclical “Laudato si’”, which (among many points) called for a drastic reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. As an economist who has contributed to the book, Pope Francis and the Caring Society, that respectfully but critically engages the thought of Pope Francis, I laud the spiritual motivation of his concerns but question the actual consequences of his recommendations.

Simply put, the Pope’s ideas on climate change would end up hurting the world’s poorest members, the very people his supporters think they are helping.

As Philip Booth points out in his own chapter in the book, St. Thomas Aquinas understood that private property provides the incentive to individual owners to use the resources under their control in the public interest. To give a concrete example, the African white rhino’s population soared after a change in the legal code that enabled private rights in the animals, fostering a robust market. Yet in his encyclical, Pope Francis seems to overlook this appreciation of the “Invisible Hand” when he sweepingly writes: “The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone.”

Regarding climate change, the Pope’s encyclical stresses that a “very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.”

People should realize that this popular term “consensus” obscures the vigorous debate among genuine experts on the extent of warming and how much to attribute to human versus natural factors. For example, John R. Christy has a PhD in Atmospheric Science, has been a Lead Author, a Contributor, and a Reviewer for the UN’s periodic report on climate change science, and (with Dr. Roy Spencer) won a Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement from NASA in 1991 for their creation of a dataset of satellite-based global temperature readings. Notwithstanding these “mainstream” credentials, in 2017 Christy testified before Congress that even the latest suite of climate models has vastly exaggerated the sensitivity of global temperatures to human activity.

Yet even if Christy is wrong, the type of “consensus” cited by Pope Francis wouldn’t be enough. Physics and chemistry don’t tell us whether a carbon tax of (say) $40 per ton would cause more harm than good. To answer this type of question, we need the input of economists, not just natural scientists.

To appreciate the disconnect between the public rhetoric and the economics of climate change, consider: one can use the latest issue of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to make a case that limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius—a bare minimum target in the Paris Climate agreement—would actually be worse than doing nothing. Indeed, William D. Nordhaus, a pioneer in the economics of climate change and a strong proponent of carbon taxes, has written that the target of 2°C is “not really very scientific” nor is it even feasible. Moreover, a website urging aggressive action on climate change currently estimates that even if all of the signatories to the Paris Agreement met their pledges, the world would warm 3.2°C—blowing well past the alleged critical ceiling of 2°C.

Humans currently rely on fossil fuels for electricity and transportation because they are convenient, “dense,” and reliable forms of energy storage. Citizens in first world countries enjoy the blessings of the Industrial Revolution and modern, free-market capitalism, but the rest of the world lags far behind. Using data from the Energy Information Administration and the World Bank, we can calculate the amount of petroleum products (measured in barrels of oil) consumed per person during 2015, across various countries. For example, Americans consumed 22.2 barrels per person, while Germany consumed 10.6 and France 9.3. In contrast, the figure for China was 3.3, Ghana 1.0, and for Bangladesh it was a mere 0.2.

If Pope Francis achieves his goal of quickly reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the consumption of oil and other fossil fuels, he may unwittingly condemn the world’s poorest people to the unnecessary misery of abject poverty.


Australian government repeating mistakes on energy, says former PM

Tony Abbott has accused Malcolm Turnbull of trying to repeat his failed 2009 attempt to secure a deal with Labor on an emissions trading scheme, and warned that the government is suffering an “ideological fixation” with reducing carbon emissions.

Delivering his most strident attack to date on his government’s own energy policy, the former prime minister has warned Liberal colleagues they risk a ­repeat of a split that almost ­destroyed the party a decade ago.

Less than four weeks before five critical by-elections, Mr ­Abbott has sought to escalate the internal campaign against the ­national energy guarantee ahead of a pivotal August meeting of COAG in which the government will seek support from Labor states.

“Does the Liberal Party nine years on realise the wheel has turned full circle and we are back to where we were in late 2009, with Malcolm Turnbull trying to do a deal with the Labor Party on emissions reduction,” Mr Abbott told The Australian, ahead of a speech tonight to the climate sceptic-think tank, the Australian Environment Foundation.

“It’s not a circle you can square with the Labor Party … it is a fight that has to be won. There can be no consensus on climate change … you either win or lose … and at the moment we are losing.”

Mr Abbott, who lost the leadership to Mr Turnbull in September 2015, yesterday refused to rule out a second stint as leader, claiming that while it was unlikely he would ever be prime minister again, it was not beyond possibility.

In his first set-piece address on energy, to be delivered tonight in Melbourne, Mr Abbott will prosecute a case against the NEG, describing it as the definition of “insanity” and an impenetrable document that would commit an act of “self-harm” on the country’s economy.

“Now, I can understand why the government would like to crack the so-called trilemma of keeping the lights on, getting power prices down and reducing emissions in line with our Paris targets; it’s just that there’s no plausible evidence all three can be done at the same time,” Mr ­Abbott says in his written speech.

“If you read the national ­energy guarantee documentation, there’s a few lines about lower prices, a few pages about maintaining supply, and page after impenetrable page about reducing emissions. The government is kidding us when it says that it’s all about reducing price when there’s an emissions reduction target and a reliability target but not a price ­target.”

Mr Abbott risks being accused of a naked attempt to destabilise the Prime Minister by invoking the events of 2009, when Mr ­Abbott rolled Mr Turnbull for the Liberal leadership, a move triggered by Mr Turnbull’s support for Labor’s ETS.

Last week Mr Abbott’s call for a special partyroom meeting to discuss the NEG was shut down by Mr Turnbull and failed to get support from colleagues. The majority of Liberal MPs support the policy.

Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg has signalled to conservative MPs beyond Mr Abbott and a ginger group that he was looking at an “add-on” policy to the NEG that would guarantee to put more gas and coal into the energy system.

The political stakes are high for the government with a recent Newspoll conducted for The Australian revealing that Labor was now more trusted to deliver cheaper and more reliable power than the Coalition. Last week the Nationals issued a set of demands to Mr Turnbull including the establishment of a $4 billion-$5bn fund for coal-fired power. A majority of Coalition MPs believe the best course of action would be to deliver the NEG and move on from the energy debate, which could become an electoral liability for the government.

Mr Frydenberg has consistently argued that the NEG is the best solution to a decade-long problem by providing certainty for investment through a technology-neutral policy that allowed for the continuation of coal-fired power, which still provides up to 80 per cent of the national grid’s baseload power in high-demand periods.

Mr Abbott and colleagues including outspoken NSW federal Liberal MP Craig Kelly argue that the NEG is an energy-intensity scheme by another name and will lead to the death of coal-fired power in Australia and what Mr Abbott claims will be “the de-industrialisation” of the country.

“Sure, we can substantially reduce emissions, but if we do we can’t expect power prices not to rise and we can’t expect energy-­intensive industries not to close,” Mr Abbott says in his speech.

“But this is our future — under the national energy guarantee — because the emissions-reduction requirement means more wind and less coal; and the reliability requirement means more gas and more ‘demand management’.

“This is the predicament we’re in because successive governments have tried to save the planet by subsidising renewable energy and by imposing emissions reduction targets. So now we want even more ­renewable energy — up from 23 per cent to perhaps 36; as well as even higher emissions reduction targets.

“Isn’t one of the definitions of insanity doing the same thing and expecting a different result?

“If the country with the world’s largest readily available reserves of coal, gas and uranium continues to inflict on itself some of the world’s highest power prices, future generations will surely shake their heads in perplexity at such deliberate self-harm.”

Mr Abbott admits he signed up for the Paris climate change agreement as prime minister, having also brought in the Renewable Energy Target, but claims he had only ever envisaged aspirational goals.

“I certainly didn’t anticipate … how the aspirational targets we agreed to at Paris would, in different hands, become binding commitments,” he says in his written speech. “A government that can build Snowy 2.0, to provide high-cost firming capacity, but can’t or won’t build Hazelwood 2.0 to provide low-cost baseload power for the next half century — and keep the market honest — is suffering from an ideological fixation.”

Mr Abbott says that, given Mr Turnbull and ministers spent months “quite rightly” attacking Labor for plunging South Australia into darkness with a 50 per cent renewable energy target, “it’s remarkable that the government now wants an energy policy that’s acceptable to … Labor premiers; and is so keen for a deal that the partyroom will have to endorse whatever emerges from COAG”.




Preserving the graphics:  Most graphics on this site are hotlinked from elsewhere.  But hotlinked graphics sometimes have only a short life -- as little as a week in some cases.  After that they no longer come up.  From January 2011 on, therefore, I have posted a monthly copy of everything on this blog to a separate site where I can host text and graphics together -- which should make the graphics available even if they are no longer coming up on this site.  See  here or here


No comments: