WASHINGTON, May 6, 2015 – Whether crusading against a California oyster farm, against global warming or against fossil fuels, the Obama administration has repeatedly ignored its proclaimed commitment to transparency and “science-based policy.” That was the Republican message delivered in last week’s House Natural Resources Oversight Subcommittee hearing titled “Zero Accountability: The Consequences of Politically Driven Science.” Democrats countered that the hearing was another partisan attack against the Obama administration.
Subcommittee Chair Louie Gohmert R-Texas, heard witnesses testify that federal agencies acted arbitrarily when the National Park Service forced a California oyster farm out of business, when the Fish & Wildlife Service raised mistaken concerns about whooping cranes in Texas, and when FEMA appeared to prioritize the Houston toad over protecting human life in Texas. Gohmert responded to these cases of alleged “government overreach” by warning that this is “exactly what happens when we leave individuals to fend for themselves against this federal government.”
Gohmert promised “more hearings to get to the bottom of what our government is doing to our people” and said it’s up to Congress “to hold accountable those charged with executing the laws that we establish.” Gohmert’s concerns are similar to those raised by House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop, R-Utah. Bishop recently blasted the administration’s “prescriptive environmental regulations that cause more harm than good,” charging that the administration’s approach “no longer protects the land, yet leaves powerless the people who use that land.”
In last week’s subcommittee hearing, Kathleen Hartnett-White, director of the Armstrong Center for Energy and Environment at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, testified that federal misuse of science extends well beyond oysters, toads and whooping cranes. Referring to the administration’s Clean Power Plan due to be finalized in June to limit coal power plant emissions, White said that “I think the elimination of fossil fuels as rapidly as possible would have enormous impacts across the world.” She concluded that “the science that supports the need to do that has to be extremely robust, and I think that the current state of climate science is not strong enough nor are the key models validated in order to support policies of that magnitude.”
Kevin Lunny who operated the now-closed Drake’s Bay Oyster Co. in Point Reyes National Park north of San Francisco, pointed to repeated cases of federal officials employing what he said was phony science.
As one example, he said the Park Service tried to prove noise from Lunny’s boats was disturbing the park’s harbor seals by using measurements from a “70-horsepower, 700cc Kawasaki jet ski in New Jersey.” In a second example, Lunny noted that in claiming to make a scientific point about sedimentation from his oyster farm, “the Park Service again chose not to use site-specific information, instead substituting data from a 1955 study from Japan.”
Lunny warned that just as “unelected Park Service” officials misrepresented scientific findings to close his oyster farm, the Park Service is using the same tactics to force out ranchers, like himself, who still operate within the park. “We are terrified,” he testified, “because we are challenging the Park Service very seriously.”
Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., who represents Lunny’s congressional district praised Lunny as “a good steward.” Then he urged Lunny not to “re-litigate” former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s decision to close the oyster farm. Rather than responding to Lunny’s charges about Park Service misrepresentations, however, Huffman instead condemned the Republican party’s “consistent record of attacking government science, of underfunding science and research and, frankly, of flouting science, especially when it comes to our climate and our environment.”
Huffman called the subcommittee hearing “another partisan attempt to attack the Obama administration.” Yet in an acknowledgement of federal overreach, Huffman said Lunny “wasn’t always treated as fairly and respectfully as he should have been” and that “In their zeal to secure the first marine wilderness on the West Coast, some advocates overstated the environmental impacts of the oyster operation.”
Faced with clear evidence that the Park Service hid some facts and misrepresented others, Huffman acknowledged that the oyster farm was closed not based on science but instead “based on policy and based on discretion.”
Naomi Oreskes, Harvard University professor of the History of Science, testified about the importance of accepting the scientific findings generated by government agencies. She warned against other witnesses “trying to cast doubt on environmental science, arguing that is politically driven, and we should not be using it to make important decisions.”
Pointing to government science including the Manhattan project, the Apollo program, plate tectonics, and ozone science, she insisted that “Some of the best and most famous science in the history of our country was driven by goals that were explicitly political.” But echoing Huffman, Oreskes concluded that the question of whether to allow an oyster farm to continue operating at Point Reyes was “not a scientific question but a social, political and economic one.” Left unsaid was the implication that by their admitted misrepresentations and mistakes, the National Park Service and other federal agencies have undermined confidence in the government’s use of science.
For Oreskes, a major challenge today is that organizations such as the Heartland Institute are deliberately challenging the science behind the administration’s climate change policies in order to delay action.
Questioned by Subcommittee Ranking Member Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., Oreskes explained that “If people think the science is uncertain, then they will think that it is premature to act.” She pointed out that the tobacco industry successfully delayed federal action for years and that current opposition could delay EPA’s plan to limit coal plants’ CO2 emissions and drive up costs. Oreskes concluded that “If you are manufacturing a product that is hurting people like tobacco and you want to continue to manufacture that product, then creating confusion, creating doubt is a very effective way to do that.”
Current examples of Republican efforts to rein in the administration’s plan for combating global warming include:
· Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., introduced the “Secret Science Reform Act” (S. 544) to “prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from proposing, finalizing, or disseminating regulations or assessments based upon science that is not transparent or reproducible.”
· Rep. Todd Young, R-Ind., introduced the “Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act,” (H.R. 427) to “provide that major rules of the executive branch shall have no force or effect unless a joint resolution of approval is enacted into law.”
· Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., wrote the National Governors Association in March urging governors to refuse to submit state plans to implement EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan to limit coal plant carbon emissions.
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