09/29/2011 09:38 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Report Critical of EPA Instead Raises Questions About Watchdog

A report by EPA Inspector General Arthur A. Elkins, Jr. that criticizes the agency's greenhouse gases endangerment finding is instead raising questions about Elkins and the integrity of the Office of the Inspector General.

The report was requested by Sen. James Inhofe, R-OK, minority lead on the Senate Environment and Public Works committee and congress's most vocal climate change denier. Inhofe leaked the report early and trumpeted its findings Wednesday, saying it "calls the scientific integrity of EPA's decision-making process into question and undermines the credibility of the endangerment finding."

But the report doesn't question the science. Nor does it question the endangerment finding itself. It questions the procedure the EPA followed in its process of researching and preparing the finding. But the EPA says Elkins got it wrong.

The EPA argues there were in fact no procedural problems, and issued a statement strongly disagreeing with the Inspector General's report. The agency has a peer review handbook, established in December of 2000, which clearly lays out the policy that should be followed:

The goal of the Peer Review Policy and this Handbook is to enhance the quality and credibility of Agency decisions by ensuring that the scientific and technical work products underlying these decisions receive appropriate levels of peer review by independent scientific and technical experts. (emphasis added)

That"s exactly what the EPA did. The research the EPA considered was extensively peer reviewed by independent scientific experts -- the very best experts in the field, in fact, including the authors of the 2007 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report; four reports by the National Research Council (NRC) of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS); 18 independent federal studies; and the international Arctic Climate Impact Assessment. The NRC research reports are, in the words of the NAS, "so thoroughly examined and tested, and supported by so many independent observations and results, that their likelihood of subsequently being found to be wrong is vanishingly small."

So if there is no problem with the science... and no problem with the EPA's procedure... what is the Inspector General's criticism based on?

Elkins says that the EPA should not have followed its own peer review handbook. He argues the agency should instead have followed a separate peer review procedure defined in a 2004 set of guidelines (pdf) created by the Bush White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

Those guidelines say that in the case of a "Highly Influential Scientific Assessment," (HISA) additional independent peer review is required. The guidelines define a HISA as an assessment that could have an impact of more than $500 million in one year and is "novel, controversial, or precedent setting." Elkins, an attorney, argues that the finding met the requirements of a HISA, and that the EPA should have gone through additional independent peer review as a result.

"While it may be debatable what impact, if any, this had on EPA's finding, it is clear that EPA did not follow all the required steps," Elkins said in a Wednesday statement.

Not so fast, said the EPA, arguing the finding did not qualify as "highly influential" because it merely compiled independent scientific assessments that had already undergone peer review, so there was no change in the science.

To make certain, the EPA asked the OMB to review a draft of the report before publication. The OMB responded that the EPA "reasonably interpreted the OMB bulletin in concluding that the TSD did not meet the bulletin's definition of a Highly Influential Scientific Assessment."

It is difficult to conclude other than that Inspector Elkins is playing politics in Inhofe's sandbox - conducting a major investigation at taxpayer expense -- the report cost nearly $300,000 -- to nick the agency with a finding that appears to be based on... not science... not the longstanding procedures of the EPA... not even the procedures of the OMB... but the arbitrary opinion of... himself.

Considering the charged policy environment around climate change and that the report was requested by congress's leading climate denier, Elkin's report seems a colossal blunder at best, and at worst an intentional toss of political ammunition to Inhofe to use in a PR spin cycle of further obfuscation and climate change denialism -- at a time when all the science is suggesting it is a threat to public health and the environment. Perhaps we should be asking "who's watching the watchdog?"

Pre-order Shawn Lawrence Otto's important new book: Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America, "a gripping analysis of America's anti-science crisis." --Starred Kirkus Review. An "incredible book" -- Starred Publishers Weekly review. Like him on Facebook.