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Obscure Ozone Advisory Panel Scrutinized by Congress

02/11/2016

By Karen Kerrigan

Last week, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW), called upon the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to provide greater transparency behind the process used to choose new members of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC).

In the letter, Senator Inhofe raised several concerns about EPA’s unwillingness to share public information regarding the process for selecting CASAC members. As the letter points out, EPA tried to hide its most recent panel selection from the general public.  Moreover the chairman noted that EPA inexcusably withheld information from the public on the member’s qualifications, saying the agency’s handling of appointments is “opaque,” “misguided,” and contrary to transparency requirements under the Clean Air Act. Inhofe also called on the EPA to explain and address potential conflicts-of-interest of CASAC members, veiled public disclosure during the selection process and the lack of view-point diversity on the panel. He also suggested that EPA may be compromising the integrity of its own advisory panels by appointing people who benefit from millions in federal research grants from the agency and who also happen to peer-review their own work, as he writes:

The majority of CASAC members have also received considerable financial support from EPA, which calls into question their independence and therefore the integrity of the overall panel.”

Senator Inhofe’s letter continues rigorous oversight by Congress. In addition to EPW’s continued oversight, the House Science committee led by Texas Republican Rep. Lamar Smith, charged that the vast majority of appointees to CASAC’s Ozone Review Panel were essentially reviewing their own work. And it’s not just Congress weighing in. The EPA’s Inspector General, too, recently released a report after conducting an investigation.

Most Americans have never heard of CASAC, nor are they aware that it exists to provide EPA with advice on where to set the national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) for ozone and other pollutants.   CASAC has repeatedly advised EPA to lower the ozone standard down to 60 parts-per-billion (ppb), an impossible standard for this country to meet. Thankfully, EPA has twice now declined to follow the committee’s more extreme advice.  Just last year, under President Obama, the EPA decided to lower the standard to 70 ppb.  However, EPA arrived at their decision only after an intense and protracted public battle over the extreme cost of setting the standard any lower. While meeting the new lower standard will be onerous and expensive for small businesses, the economic fallout is at least constrained.

Despite CASAC’s immense influence, the public has little awareness over the impact the committee member’s opinions can have on EPA’s ultimate decision to raise or reduce ozone standards.  Therefore it is crucial that Congress focus its attention on this powerful advisory committee. Congressional oversight committees are absolutely correct that is critical that EPA be transparent regarding how they appoint members to CASAC, especially since members will serve well into the next administration, regardless of who wins the 2016 presidential election.

Karen Kerrigan is president & CEO of the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council (SBE Council). The Center for Regulatory Solutions is a project of the Council.