The OMB-EPA Kerfuffle That Wasn't

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Is the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) deliberately trying to sabotage the EPA’s efforts to regulate carbon dioxide emissions? Is Peter Orszag, the agency’s brainy and genial director, secretly in cahoots with Republican opponents of President Obama’s climate policies?

Not quite – though that may have been your first impression upon reading the raft of articles published yesterday that breathlessly reported that an OMB memo had strongly criticized the EPA’s proposal to regulate greenhouse gases.

The initial story, as dished out by Dow Jones reporter Ian Talley, had all the elements of a hot scoop: internal dissension, a scathing government memo hinting at incompetence and impropriety, and a seeming reversal of one of the administration’s core positions. Eagerly picked up by the press and quickly circulated among the blogosphere, it provided welcome fodder for conservative critics of the president intent on sinking his GHG mitigation policies.

The one problem: the story, as originally formulated, is dead wrong.

As Orszag later clarified on his blog, his agency had in no way opposed the EPA’s proposal to regulate greenhouse gases. Any stories suggesting the contrary were “unfounded,” he said.

The supposed OMB “memo” is, in fact, a collection of all the different comments gathered from the various agencies during the inter-agency review process of the EPA’s proposal. The comment that was widely picked up by the press to suggest that the OMB did not agree with the EPA’s recommendations was revealed to have been made by a Bush administration holdover (surprise, surprise) at the Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy.

As Grist’s David Roberts pointed out in his post-mortem assessment of the debacle, the views of this “independent entity” do not “necessarily reflect the views of the SBA or the Administration.”

So there you have it: a reporter, perhaps tipped off by former Bush administration staff or sympathetic energy industry executives, found one small section critical of the EPA’s proposal among an extensive list of comments and used it to write a story suggesting there is broad disagreement in the Obama camp over how to regulate GHGs – when there is, in fact, none. As Orszag explains:

The bottom line is that OMB would not have concluded review, which allows the finding to move forward, if we had concerns about whether EPA’s finding was consistent with either the law or the underlying science. The press reports to the contrary are simply false.”

In a certain sense, you can’t blame the mainstream media entirely for jumping on this story. As Roberts notes, conservative lawmakers and interest groups immediately latched onto it, loudly proclaiming it to be the “smoking gun” that proved that the EPA’s proposal would “threaten” the economy and have other grave consequences, prompting reporters like ABC’s Jake Tapper to pick up on it too. This does not excuse the media’s behavior – though, to be fair, I should note that most publications updated their stories upon seeing Orszag’s comments – but, unfortunately, it’s the name of the game.

Just as the mainstream media has been slow to parse deniers’ outrageous claims out of a misguided sense of “balance,” so has it also been slow to do due diligence on stories like this – and climate change is hardly the only topic that gets this treatment – that can confuse and mislead readers.

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