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EPA Chief McCarthy Swipes at Critics Over 'Secret Science' Claims

Nine months after being confirmed to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Gina McCarthy took aim at critics that claim the agency relies on "secret science," and promised it would deliver its contribution to President Obama's Climate Action Plan.

McCarthy didn't specifically mention oil and natural gas operations or hydraulic fracturing during her remarks at the National Academy of Sciences' (NAS) annual meeting on Monday, but she spoke extensively about air quality issues and climate change.

"With science as our 'North Star,' EPA has steered America away from health risks, and toward healthier communities and a higher overall quality of life," McCarthy said. "That's why today it's worrisome that our science seems to be under constant assault by a small but vocal group of critics.

"Those critics conjure up claims of 'EPA secret science,' but it's not really about EPA science or secrets. It's about challenging the credibility of world renowned scientists and institutions...[and] about claiming that research is secret if researchers protect confidential personal health data from those who are not qualified to analyze it, and who won't agree to protect it.

"If EPA is being accused of 'secret science' because we rely on real scientists to conduct research, and independent scientists to peer review it, and scientists who have spent a lifetime studying that science to reproduce it, then so be it. I can live with it." The audience applauded at that point.

McCarthy added that the EPA's critics -- whom she did not specifically identify, but are assumed to be those who deny or refute climate change, including some Republicans in Congress -- were "playing a dangerous game" by discrediting scientists.

"For some reason those critics keep launching empty allegations at the work of experts without regard for the damage left behind," McCarthy said. "My guess is that those critics that distrust the most trustworthy institutions -- and vilify the work of reputable scientists and EPA -- are not trying to provide scientific clarity. My guess is that they're looking to cloud the science with uncertainty -- to keep EPA from doing the very job that Congress gave us to do.

"As scientists and public health professionals, we have an obligation to speak up when sound science is unfairly criticized, just as we have an obligation to question science that is truly secret. To those calling EPA untrustworthy and unpopular -- I have a newsflash. People like us. They want safe drinking water. They want healthy air. And they expect us to follow the science, just as the law demands."

Republicans in the U.S. Senate had opposed McCarthy's nomination to head the EPA, due to her role in drafting regulations affecting the industry. After a four-month battle, which included a committee boycott by Republicans, McCarthy was confirmed in July 2013 (see Daily GPIJuly 19, 2013May 10, 2013).

McCarthy added that NAS "was right" in pointing out that climate change was a threat to the nation's health, economy, environment and security. "Climate change is not the product of conspiracies or political agendas," she said. "Denial and inaction are the biggest dangers of all. That's why the president's Climate Action Plan to cut carbon pollution and to prepare for climate impacts is so critical. And EPA will deliver on our pieces of that plan without fail."

Two years ago, the natural gas industry disputed the findings of a paper published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on the grounds that the organization used "outdated and incomplete" data to arrive at its conclusions.

Last month, the White House unveiled a strategy for reducing methane emissions from oil and gas operations (see Daily GPIMarch 28). EPA, the Department of Energy and the Department of Interior were tasked with the responsibility for ensuring emissions are reduced. In 2013, President Obama announced a sweeping climate change initiative, which some derided as the makings of a "war" on the coal industry (see Daily GPIJune 27, 2013).

McCarthy said she hoped Tom Burke would be confirmed by Congress soon to lead EPA's Office of Research and Development (see Daily GPINov. 8, 2013).

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