GOP, Harvard, EPA Grapple Over Landmark Health Study

Republicans see a window to undermine the Obama administration's last, best argument for green regulations.

Republicans are going after environmental groups' last, best line of defense.

The environmental lobby has long leveraged three main arguments in its fight for clean-air policies: climate science, jobs, and public health. But ever since President Obama took office, Republicans have made strong inroads against the first two arguments, turning the once solid talking points into question marks among moderates and outright liabilities among conservatives.

The connection between global warming and human activity is settled science among climatologists, but the public at large sees the issue very differently. Only 42 percent of Americans believe in human-caused global warming, down from 47 percent in 2008, according to a long-standing Pew Research Center poll. And "green jobs" have become a favorite topic of conversation for Republicans, who have been relentless in their efforts to publicize the failure of Solyndra, the solar-panel company that went bankrupt despite receiving more than $500 million in federal loan guarantees.

But while climate science and green jobs have become politicized, cancer and asthma have not, and the public health benefits of environmental regulations remain the green lobby's most persuasive argument.

Republicans are now working on a plan to undermine even that. As the Obama administration considers new clean-air regulations for coal-fired power plants and other polluters, GOP lawmakers on the Hill are attacking the fundamental science the Environmental Protection Agency says proves that curbing emissions protects the public from harm.

As first reported in The Boston Globe, the House Science Committee last month hit the administration with a subpoena, demanding that it release more information about a landmark 20-year-old public-health study by Harvard University that has provided the empirical backbone for a host of clean-air regulations, including the rules now in the works.

Republicans argue that the administration is overstating the public-health benefits of the regulations, and — because the raw data backing the Harvard study have never been fully released — they are accusing EPA of using "secret science" to provide cover for its expected restrictions on power plants. "Our view is that if the [administration] is using the data to justify its regulations, then it ... should have access to that information and be able to provide it to Congress," said Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican and the chairman of the Science panel.

In aiming at EPA, however, these GOP members have put themselves on a collision course with Harvard. The administration says the university — and the university alone — has ownership of the raw data that researchers used for the study. And thus far, Harvard is showing no signs of surrendering the data. In fact, it says it is legally banned from doing so.

The study in question tracked the health of more than 8,000 participants in six cities for 15 years, compared their health with information about local air quality, and concluded that particulate pollution poses a serious threat to human health. The Harvard scientists also relied on government death databases, and to get access to those databases, they signed binding agreements not to publish the data in any form that would allow individuals to be identified. Violating those agreements would not only be illegal, the university argues, it would also make individuals less likely to volunteer for health studies in the future.

Although the data have never been made public, Harvard insists the research has been subject to more than enough scrutiny to confirm its integrity. The study's design was subject to an internal university review board before it was allowed to go forward, and after the research was conducted, the results were peer-reviewed before being published in a top-tier scientific journal. Since publication, the study's design has been duplicated several times by other researchers, with each iteration supporting the central conclusion.

Those facts carry little weight with Smith, who said the methods needed to obscure individual identities are readily available. At least for now, however, the privacy argument has been strong enough to keep the data confidential. But even if Republican opponents never see the data they're demanding, they may still be able to weaken the public's belief in a link between new environmental regulations and public health. It's worked before.

Americans' belief in human-made global warming fell most sharply following "Climategate," the mass hacking of scientists' e-mails that critics insist revealed a conspiracy to sell the public on unsound science. The scandal is best remembered for an e-mail in which scientists discussed "hiding the decline." But, contrary to widespread popular belief, that quote did not refer to a decline in global temperatures. And although the episode caused plenty of embarrassment for the hacked scientists, the e-mails failed to produce concrete evidence of efforts to falsify climate science.

On the green-jobs front, Republicans succeeded in making Solyndra the best-known example, but it's hardly the most representative. The loan-guarantee money floated to Solyndra was part of a $34 billion Energy Department loan portfolio. And of that $34 billion, only about 2 percent has been lost; the other 98 percent has either been repaid or is on track toward repayment.

For now, House Republicans, EPA, and Harvard appear at a stalemate. Smith is demanding that EPA release the raw data by Sept. 30. The agency appears unlikely to budge from its position that only Harvard can decide if the information should be made public. As for sidestepping the executive branch and going after Harvard, Smith hasn't made any moves yet, but he isn't ruling it out. "All options," a Science Committee aide said, "are on the table."