Saving Climate Data (Part 6)

Scott Pruitt, who filed legal challenges against Environmental Protection Agency rules fourteen times, working hand in hand with oil and gas companies, is now head of that agency. What does that mean about the safety of climate data on the EPA’s websites? Here is an inside report:

• Dawn Reeves, EPA preserves Obama-Era website but climate change data doubts remain, InsideEPA.com, 21 February 2017.

For those of us who are backing up climate data, the really important stuff is in red near the bottom.

The EPA has posted a link to an archived version of its website from Jan. 19, the day before President Donald Trump was inaugurated and the agency began removing climate change-related information from its official site, saying the move comes in response to concerns that it would permanently scrub such data.

However, the archived version notes that links to climate and other environmental databases will go to current versions of them—continuing the fears that the Trump EPA will remove or destroy crucial greenhouse gas and other data.

The archived version was put in place and linked to the main page in response to “numerous [Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)] requests regarding historic versions of the EPA website,” says an email to agency staff shared by the press office. “The Agency is making its best reasonable effort to 1) preserve agency records that are the subject of a request; 2) produce requested agency records in the format requested; and 3) post frequently requested agency records in electronic format for public inspection. To meet these goals, EPA has re-posted a snapshot of the EPA website as it existed on January 19, 2017.”

The email adds that the action is similar to the snapshot taken of the Obama White House website.

The archived version of EPA’s website includes a “more information” link that offers more explanation.

For example, it says the page is “not the current EPA website” and that the archive includes “static content, such as webpages and reports in Portable Document Format (PDF), as that content appeared on EPA’s website as of January 19, 2017.”

It cites technical limits for the database exclusions. “For example, many of the links contained on EPA’s website are to databases that are updated with the new information on a regular basis. These databases are not part of the static content that comprises the Web Snapshot.” Searches of the databases from the archive “will take you to the current version of the database,” the agency says.

“In addition, links may have been broken in the website as it appeared” on Jan. 19 and those will remain broken on the snapshot. Links that are no longer active will also appear as broken in the snapshot.

“Finally, certain extremely large collections of content… were not included in the Snapshot due to their size” such as AirNow images, radiation network graphs, historic air technology transfer network information, and EPA’s searchable news releases.”

‘Smart’ Move

One source urging the preservation of the data says the snapshot appears to be a “smart” move on EPA’s behalf, given the FOIA requests it has received, and notes that even though other groups like NextGen Climate and scientists have been working to capture EPA’s online information, having it on EPA’s site makes it official.

But it could also be a signal that big changes are coming to the official Trump EPA site, and it is unclear how long the agency will maintain the archived version.

The source says while it is disappointing that the archive may signal the imminent removal of EPA’s climate site, “at least they are trying to accommodate public concerns” to preserve the information.

A second source adds that while it is good that EPA is seeking “to address the widespread concern” that the information will be removed by an administration that does not believe in human-caused climate change, “on the other hand, it doesn’t address the primary concern of the data. It is snapshots of the web text.” Also, information “not included,” such as climate databases, is what is difficult to capture by outside groups and is what really must be preserved.

“If they take [information] down” that groups have been trying to preserve, then the underlying concern about access to data remains. “Web crawlers and programs can do things that are easy,” such as taking snapshots of text, “but getting the data inside the database is much more challenging,” the source says.

The first source notes that EPA’s searchable databases, such as those maintained by its Clean Air Markets Division, are used by the public “all the time.”

The agency’s Office of General Counsel (OGC) Jan. 25 began a review of the implications of taking down the climate page—a planned wholesale removal that was temporarily suspended to allow for the OGC review.

But EPA did remove some specific climate information, including links to the Clean Power Plan and references to President Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan. Inside EPA captured this screenshot of the “What EPA Is Doing” page regarding climate change. Those links are missing on the Trump EPA site. The archive includes the same version of the page as captured by our screenshot.

Inside EPA first reported the plans to take down the climate information on Jan. 17.

After the OGC investigation began, a source close to the Trump administration said Jan. 31 that climate “propaganda” would be taken down from the EPA site, but that the agency is not expected to remove databases on GHG emissions or climate science. “Eventually… the propaganda will get removed…. Most of what is there is not data. Most of what is there is interpretation.”

The Sierra Club and Environmental Defense Fund both filed FOIA requests asking the agency to preserve its climate data, while attorneys representing youth plaintiffs in a federal climate change lawsuit against the government have also asked the Department of Justice to ensure the data related to its claims is preserved.

The Azimuth Climate Data Backup Project and other groups are making copies of actual databases, not just the visible portions of websites.

5 Responses to Saving Climate Data (Part 6)

  1. John Baez says:

    Some news. Obama’s plan to fight climate change, the Clean Power Plan, may soon be scrapped, along with dozens of other Environmental Protection Agency programs:

    • Doug Obey, EPA budget said to ‘zero out’ scores of programs; cut grants, staff, InsideEPA.com, 1 March 2017

    The Trump administration’s controversial plan that will require an almost 25 percent cut to the agency’s budget in fiscal year 2018 reportedly includes plans to slash state grants by 30 percent, scale back the agency’s workforce by 20 percent and “zero out” almost two dozen programs, including popular brownfields and diesel emissions grants, as well as funds for implementing the Clean Power Plan.

    The cuts are spelled out in a note from the National Association of Clean Air Agencies (NACAA), a group that represents state and local air regulators, to its members providing details of the “pass back” EPA received from the Office of Management & Budget (OMB) earlier this week that launched internal talks on the agency’s budget.

    […]

    Regardless of how much of EPA’s current budget Pruitt is able to preserve, the criticism from states is likely to reinforce concerns from House Republican appropriators, not known as strong defenders of the agency, who have indicated the agency is unlikely to be cut by as much as the administration is proposing.

    “In the EPA’s case their funding has been reduced by over 20 percent since 2011 anyway. They are operating at 1989 staffing levels. So you really want to be sure you are not cutting the meat and muscle with the fat,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), a veteran lawmaker who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, told Inside EPA Feb. 28.

  2. John Baez says:

    More news:

    • Anthony Lacey, EPA Staff brace for lengthy fight against massive proposed budget cuts, InsideEPA.com, 3 March 2017.

    Pruitt at the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ winter leadership meeting March 2 asked the nation’s mayors to provide him with “success stories” that would help bolster his efforts to protect his priorities — including water infrastructure funds, Superfund cleanups, brownfields redevelopment and attainment of national ambient air quality standards — from White House plans to slash the agency’s budget in FY18.

    Kaplan in his message to employees said, “I have been assured that Administrator Pruitt will work hard on our behalf to effectively represent EPA in the budget deliberations.”

    He said that Region 5, which represents Illinois and five other Midwest states, along with the other regions and EPA headquarters “components are providing important information to support his ability to do so. I know that this information will be useful as EPA and OMB engage in continuing discussions.”

    Similarly, Vizian in her message said, “I have been assured that Administrator Pruitt will be working hard on our behalf to effectively represent us in the budget deliberations. That does not mean that changes will not happen, but it does mean that he wants to take a pragmatic approach to our appropriation.”

    But such assurances are doing little to address EPA staff concerns and sagging morale across the agency. One EPA staffer said recently that “it’s as bad as you are hearing: The entire agency is under lockdown, the website . . . can’t be updated. All reports, findings, permits and studies are frozen and not to be released. No presentations or meetings with outside groups are to be scheduled.”

    “We are still doing our work, writing reports, doing cancer modeling for pesticides, hoping that this is temporary and we will be able to serve the public soon. But many of us are worried about an ideologically-fueled purging,” the source said.

  3. Stefan says:

    Now we are seeing the extent of the damage. From CNN:

    “Tuesday’s order will initiate a review of the Clean Power Plan initiative, rescind the moratorium on coal mining on US federal lands and urge federal agencies to ‘identify all regulations, all rules, all policies … that serve as obstacles and impediments to American energy independence,’ the official said. Specifically, the order will rescind at least six Obama-era executive orders aimed at curbing climate change and regulating carbon emissions, including Obama’s November 2013 executive order instructing the federal government to prepare for the impact of climate change and the September 2016 presidential memorandum that outlined the ‘growing threat to national security’ that climate change poses.”

    Thanks for leading the way to save data for the work of restoration. The question becomes: how long do you think it will take to overcome the effects of this administration–or do you think that the damage done already outweighs any effect of the coming 4 years of policy?

    • John Baez says:

      I’m not sure what you mean by “the damage done already”. The damage done to our biosphere by emitting 609 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide since the industrial revolution is certainly greater than the damage that will be done in the next 4 years. However, if Trump succeeds in derailing climate progress not just in the US but elsewhere (by breaking up the Paris Agreement), that could be disastrous. So, we just have to fight back in every reasonable way.

      • Nathan Rott, EPA chief: Trump plans to kill Obama-era Clean Power Plan, Morning Edition, National Public Radio, 27 March 2017.

      ROTT: There have been reports that Trump’s executive order will also try to do other things too, that he’ll slash a whole slew of Obama-era regulations tied to climate change. There’s a federal moratorium on coal leasing on public lands which could be addressed, a policy that requires agencies to consider climate change when making new regulations. He may even adjust something called the social cost of carbon, which puts a dollar figure on pollution, and maybe even more.

      GREENE: Well, Nate, that is a long list. And of course we’ve had these battles over what exactly presidents can do with executive power. Can Donald Trump actually accomplish all of that if that’s what he’s writing into this order?

      ROTT: Some of it he can. He’s going to need help with some of the other stuff. The smaller policies, like the moratorium on coal leasing and the instructing agencies not to consider climate change when they’re doing their cost-benefit analysis, he can do that with the stroke of a pen. Undoing the Clean Power Plan, that’s going to be a really tough thing to do.

      We don’t know exactly how he plans to do it until we see the actual language of the executive order. But no matter how he approaches it, there’s going to be challenges. I spoke to a much smarter Nathan, Nathan Richardson, a law professor at the University of South Carolina. And he said that Trump absolutely can undo the Clean Power Plan. But…

      NATHAN RICHARDSON: That’s like saying it’s possible for a battleship to turn around. It’s not something – yeah, it’s totally possible. It’s not something that can happen right away. Once you have something like the Clean Power Plan, a final rulemaking, then that can’t be withdrawn using any other process than actually the same one that was used to create it.

      ROTT: And that’s no small process. We’re talking notices and proposals and public comments. There’s sure to be lawsuits from environmental groups and maybe even some states. You put all that together, and this could very well be a years’ long process.

      GREENE: And one with global implications, right? I mean, isn’t this power plan we’re talking about basically – that was the Obama administration’s commitment to the Paris climate agreement.

      ROTT: Absolutely, it is. We should note, though, that the Clean Power Plan currently is being challenged in court by 28 states. So it’s not actually being enforced. It’s also – we’re saying, though, in terms of the Clean Power Plan, that there is a chance that even if they completely dismantled this rule, the U.S. could still meet its commitment to the world under the Paris climate agreement. If you look at renewable energy, it’s surging in the U.S. Natural gas is cheaper than coal, has fewer emissions.

      I’ve talked to a lot of experts about this, and all of them agree that killing the Clean Power Plan is not going to bring back the coal industry, which is one of Trump’s central campaign promises. If anything, it may keep some existing coal-fired power plants a lot longer. But don’t look for utilities to build any new ones. As for the Paris climate agreement, we don’t know if Trump is going to explicitly say that he wants to withdraw from it. But this executive order will undoubtedly send a message the U.S. is not going to take action on climate change any time in the foreseeable future.

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