NOAA will continue to adhere to Data Quality Act after senators drop exemption rider
Andrew Freedman, Greenwire reporter
A move to exempt the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from the Data Quality Act was squashed yesterday after senators removed the measure from the appropriations bill funding Commerce, Justice and State departments for fiscal year 2005.

The provision, put in the bill last week by retiring Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), who is credited with helping to create NOAA in 1970, would have made NOAA the only federal agency not bound by the act's restrictions. Conservative interest groups, such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute, railed against Hollings' measure, saying it undermined the government's responsibility to ensure its regulations are based on sound science.

The Data Quality Act requires the White House Office of Management and Budget to set standards for ensuring the quality of information used in agency rulemaking. It also allows groups to challenge data supporting new regulations on grounds that the information does not meet high scientific standards.

Proponents of the act, including CEI, say it makes the government more open and accountable to the public, while critics say it bogs down rulemaking and allows opponents of federal regulation to challenge new rules on dubious claims of scientific uncertainty.

But while lawmakers were responding to complaints about NOAA's possible exemption from the act, officials at the agency appeared to have no knowledge that the measure was even introduced, according to an official in the Bush administration who asked not to be named.

Meanwhile, Hollings spokeswoman Ilene Zeldin said Commerce, Justice, State Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) determined the provision needed to be considered further before being included in the bill. "Apparently it's brought a lot of attention, and Sen. Gregg thought it needed more vetting. We agree, and I guess there's going to be some more vetting on it," Zeldin said.

A recent White House report found that U.S. EPA rules, reports and policies are frequently targeted for review under the Data Quality Act. Thereport found in fiscal year 2003, there were 13 requests for changes in EPA data, while NOAA was subject to two petitions.

The report concluded that the Data Quality Act, which was passed in 2001, is too new for investigators to draw firm conclusion about its success. The report also noted that the law has not had a chilling effect on dissemination of federal data, as had been predicted by some groups. "[We] are seeing efforts at better quality disseminations, not less information," according to the report.

The nonprofit group OMB Watch, which has closely tracked implementation of the law, maintains there have been far more petitions than were contained in the White House report, and the group in its own report characterized the White House assessment as "seriously flawed, inaccurate, misleading and highly biased."

A recent Washington Post investigation found companies and industry groups have relied upon the act to challenge a number of new rules. According to an analysis of 39 major Data Quality Act claims, regulated industries filed 32 claims challenging regulations, including rules on chemical treatment of wood and the hazards of nickel

NOAA's role as the lead agency on climate change helped stir controversy over the Senate provision. Groups such as CEI that are skeptical of much climate change research expressed concern that the exemption would free NOAA to publish unsubstantiated data establishing links between human activities and a warming climate.

"This rider prevents an honest evaluation of the science of climate change from occurring and ensures that future policy decisions are based not on sound science but rather on junk science," wrote CEI Senior Fellow Christopher Horner on the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness's Web site.

The rider would have rendered moot a lawsuit CEI settled with the Bush administration last year. CEI sued President Bush and his top science adviser, contending that the government's National Assessment on Climate Change failed to follow the Data Quality Act's standards.

The national assessment found that global warming is likely to lead to longer, hotter summers and shorter, warmer winters, increased instances of flood and drought, plant and animal migrations and coastal erosion. CEI dropped the suit after two sentences were added to the report explaining that it was not produced by federal agencies but written by a third party not bound by the term of the act.

Experts say that lawsuit effectively nullified the importance of the national assessment by making it nearly impossible for the government to use it to form policy.

Lobbyist Jim Tozzi, who helped get the Data Quality Act passed four years ago, said Hollings' rider would undermine the law by opening the door for other agencies to get around it. "I think it's very bad news because it would set a precedent for anyone who doesn't like the Data Quality Act to ask for an exemption," Tozzi said.