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Editing Scientists: Science and Policy at the White House

How much do policymakers shape the science that comes out of government agencies?
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When Nancy Sutley moved in to her new office as chair of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ)—a 40-year-old White House environmental policy advisory office created by Congress—she found a lot of red pens. Immediately, she removed the pens from her desk and asked her staff to remove any red pens from their desks, as well.

"The White House should not be in the business of editing science," Sutley says. "Let the scientists do the science. It's a really easy bright line for me."

Her predecessor, Jim Connaughton, now executive vice president for corporate public affairs and environmental policy at Constellation Energy, disputes the anecdote: "If anything, I used a blue pen, because I wanted to make sure our documents were quite clear," he says. "Think of all the economists, scientists, lawyers involved [in policymaking]. I was constantly trying to make sure things came out in plain English."

But the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform found that significant editing of science documents had occurred during Connaughton's tenure and the issue remains fraught with controversy: Just how much editing of government-funded science was done, and will it continue in future?

"CEQ reviews and provides comment on innumerable documents inside the White House and under development at the agencies," Connaughton says. "I don't know how you provide expert commentary on presidential documents without having a hand in writing down what those views are."

History lesson
With the advent of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, the CEQ was set up to ensure that the federal government adequately conducted the newly required environmental impact statements, resolved disputes on environmental subjects among agencies as well as states, and generally ensured that NEPA's goal of "productive harmony" among human economic pursuits and the natural environment came to pass.

Under the Carter administration, CEQ (along with the U.S. Department of State) drafted The Global 2000 Report to the President (pdf) in 1980, which proved prescient about a host of environmental issues, from climate change to biodiversity loss. But by the time the Clinton years came along, the CEQ was largely ignored and its elimination was even considered in the 1990s.

During the Bush era, however, the CEQ came to play a large role in setting environmental policy, particularly in the area of climate change. Lawyer Philip Cooney, a CEQ chief of staff and a 15-year veteran of the American Petroleum Institute, spent the first term of the administration editing science reports from various agencies on climate change to downplay the role of greenhouse gas emissions—emphasizing elements of uncertainty from a 2001 National Research Council report on climate change, according to an investigation by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Following his resignation in 2005 immediately following reports of the editing, ostensibly for "family reasons," he joined ExxonMobil.

"Every policy document and actually every major regulation goes through intensive interagency and even inter–White House process of review. Every person with a perspective has the opportunity and the obligation to provide comment," Connaughton explains. "As one might imagine, sometimes policy people writing on economics don't quite get it right. Just as scientists writing on policy don't quite get it right. At the end of the day, scientists vet science documents and incorporate comments or reject them as appropriate."

The apparent interference by CEQ during the Bush administration prompted a 16-month congressional investigation beginning in July 2006 that pored over 27,000 pages of White House documents. "The evidence before the committee leads to one inescapable conclusion: the Bush administration has engaged in a systematic effort to manipulate climate change science and mislead policymakers and the public about the dangers of global warming," the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform wrote in its report on the matter in December 2007. "White House officials and political appointees in the agencies censored congressional testimony on the causes and impacts of global warming, controlled media access to government climate scientists, and edited federal scientific reports to inject unwarranted uncertainty into discussions of climate change."

Among other things, the committee found that CEQ routinely approved or disapproved media interview requests with federal scientists. Cooney himself made 294 edits to the administration's 364-page Strategic Plan for the U.S. Climate Change Science Program posted July 24, 2003, "to exaggerate or emphasize scientific uncertainties or to deemphasize or diminish the importance of the human role in global warming," and Cooney and the CEQ played a role in eliminating climate change sections in the EPA's draft Report on the Environment as well as its National Air Quality and Emissions Trends Report.

Nor were these edits merely recommended. CEQ's Cooney "approved" the final draft of the Strategic Plan and e-mailed James Mahoney, then the assistant secretary for oceans and atmosphere at the U.S. Department of Commerce and, in the words of Connaughton "the top official overseeing the Climate Change Science Program," on July 2, 2003, asking, "Is there any means of your assuring me that CEQ's comments were accepted in the final draft…[M]y alternative is to re-read the 330+ pages."

The CEQ also helped shape the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) declaration that it did not have the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions as well as its decision not to declare them a danger to public health under the Clean Air Act, despite an internal EPA analysis noting that greenhouse gas emissions endangered public welfare. "The decision to go with an advanced notice [of proposed rule making] or not was ultimately Steve Johnson's" (the EPA administrator at the end of the Bush tenure), Connaughton says. "That comes out of a broader policy management discussion about how far [you] could go with the Clean Air Act versus how far you could go with legislation…I would have tried to get the climate legislative piece going earlier. If I could have gotten that going a year-and-half earlier, that would have heightened prospects of climate legislation by the end of our term."

The EPA's stance, however, was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in April 2007, and one of the first actions of Lisa Jackson, the new EPA administrator under the Obama administration, was to declare CO2 and other greenhouse gases a threat to public health and welfare and release a proposed endangerment finding largely built on the earlier ignored analysis.

The green team
With the advent of the Obama administration, CEQ again reorganized, and some of its duties under the previous administration—such as taking the lead in climate change policymaking—were given to a newly created White House Office of Energy and Climate Policy directed by former Clinton-era EPA administrator, Carol Browner. "It's a recognition that our response to the energy needs of the nation and the challenge that climate change is presenting needs both high-level focus in the White House as well as the need to coordinate across the federal government," the CEQ's Sutley explains. "In our 40-year-old role as presidential environmental policy advisors we're still very much engaged in environmental policy issues associated with energy and climate change."

Sutley, for her part, came to the post after a four-year stint as a deputy mayor in Los Angeles, where she also oversaw climate change and energy policy, including restraining emissions from diesel trucks at area ports as well as promoting solar energy by setting a goal of generating 10 percent of the city's electricity from the sun by 2020. Prior to that she served in the federal EPA, California's EPA and as energy advisor to former California Gov. Gray Davis, perhaps most well known in this arena for presiding over the state energy crisis that was exacerbated by Enron.

Her new approach at CEQ "is to be guided by science and law," Sutley says. "I'm not a scientist and I'm not going to comment on the science. My role here and CEQ's role is to advise the president on environmental policy. The science is what the science is."

Whereas that may represent a break from the CEQ's role under the Bush administration, it does not mean that all Bush-era policies have been abandoned. Under Obama the CEQ is moving forward with plans formulated during his predecessor's tenure for a U.S. policy on oceans—from newly protected areas to reconciling competing authorities and laws—along with continuing the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate as a way to address global greenhouse gas emissions. "The change in administration doesn't change the fact that the U.S. and China are the largest emitters of greenhouse gas emissions," Sutley says. "Opportunities for partnership between China and the U.S. on energy and climate is good for the U.S., China and the whole world."

As for CEQ's former role in commenting on science documents from various agencies. "I'm not a scientist," Sutley says. "I am not editing science."

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