Overruling Science Advisers
In order to ensure that the rules it issues are scientifically justified, the EPA has a Science Advisory Board (SAB) comprised of independent scientists to review its research programs and advise the agency on a number of technical matters. But the SAB doesn’t have the authority to truly stand up to the EPA’s political power.
The EPA recently proposed carbon dioxide limits for new power plants that would effectively ban the construction of new coal-fired power plants without the use of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology—a way of trapping carbon dioxide emissions underground. (Never mind that CCS has yet to be proven effective outside of a laboratory environment or be shown as an economically feasible option.)
The SAB reviewed those proposed regulations knowing the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to show that if the agency is going to mandate companies to utilize new technologies in order to meet EPA standards, the agency must prove the technology has been “adequately demonstrated” to work at commercial scale at a reasonable cost. Since the SAB knew that in order to meet the EPA’s new carbon emissions standards, plants would be required to use CCS, an SAB work group identified major red flags in a November 12, 2013 memo:
- Weak Research: After reviewing the studies the EPA used to support its proposed regulations, the SAB found the “peer review of the scientific and technical information supporting the action appears to be inadequate.”
- Inadequate Peer Review: The SAB asked the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL)—the scientists who actually performed the studies used to justify the EPA’s regulations—exactly who peer-reviewed their research. The NETL responded that, “the regulatory agency that provided the review was the EPA.” So the studies showing CCS is viable were peer reviewed—but only by the EPA itself.
- Lack of Review: The SAB also learned that “NETL staff also notes that all the information presented for coal-fueled sources was not peer reviewed.”
The Wall Street Journal pointed out that even though the SAB identified a number of problems with the EPA’s reliance on CCS for new coal plants, the EPA heavily lobbied the full SAB into tabling the working group’s recommendations during a meeting a few weeks later.
In fact, as the Journal observed, even though EPA’s proposed rules will effectively require companies to use CCS if they want to build coal plants because of the rule’s stringent carbon dioxide standard, the EPA argues that the SAB shouldn’t even be looking at whether CCS technology is feasible because the EPA isn’t technically making rules that govern sequestration. Now, after pressure from the EPA, the SAB will revise its report to reflect this narrow focus.