Science & Technology in Congress
Committees in both chambers of Congress have recently held hearings to examine the scientific basis for establishing stricter national air quality standards. The debate is not restricted to policy makers versus the scientific community; disagreements abound between congressional leaders and scientists within their own camps.
At issue are the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed air quality standards for ozone and particulate matter which are stricter than in past years. These standards fall within jurisdiction of the Clean Air Act, which established National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) in 1970. The Act requires EPA to review the NAAQS every five years to ensure that they still meet public health needs.
Both the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and the House Science Subcommittee on Energy and Environment held hearings recently that featured witnesses from EPA's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC). CASAC was established by the Clean Air Act as an objective, scientific advisory board to provide independent advice on scientific and technical aspects of issues related to the air quality standards. In reviewing scientific measurements of existing ozone and particulate matter levels, members of CASAC -- individually -- disagreed on what the recommended standard range should be in order to protect public health. However, a majority of the CASAC members were able to reach consensus on a revised measurement that ultimately resulted in the proposed stricter standards.
The revised standards have raised many eyebrows among Capitol Hill legislators. Sen. John Chaffee (R-RI), Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, criticized the proposed standards since it did not take into account any cost-benefit analysis. Many other members of Congress echoed his sentiment. Opponents to the revisions say that any discussion of benefits to public health should weigh the cost to industry. In addition, some feel that the proposed standards are so restrictive that small businesses and communities will feel the impact rather than big businesses which have already complied with, and in some cases exceeded, the standards set by the Clean Air Act.
Also at issue is the scientific process by which the standards are established. If so many scientists within CASAC differed in their opinion as to what is an appropriate level, then how "exact" a science are these standards based on? One problem is that there is no "bright line" that clearly delineates when air quality has no impact on public health and when it does. This has resulted in scientists differing on the range that should be set for the standard. Rep. Tom Coburn (R-OK) questioned the whole procedure during the House Science subcommittee hearing, asking whether the policy was driving the science or science driving the policy.
The proposed NAAQS were announced in the Federal Register in December. The period for public comment ended in February, and EPA must file a final set of standards by June 28. If members of Congress continue to disagree with the stricter standards, they may amend the Clean Air Act, as they have in the past, to implement looser restrictions. Many industry leaders oppose the new standards, and are already building coalitions to convince Congress to oppose them as well.