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More federal websites change what they say about climate, environment

Apr 6, 2017

Some government websites are changing what they say about the environment, and a group of researchers is keeping track. Researchers in the U.S. and Canada are continuing to back up scientific data from federal agencies in the U.S.

They’re also keeping a close eye on how information is changing on federal websites like the EPA, the State Department and the Department of Energy, along with other federal agency sites, and they've been finding changes are happening.

One of the groups heading up this effort is called the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative.

EDGI regularly releases reports with updates on its findings. The group's most recent report focused on a part of the Government Accountability Office website about the management of federal oil and gas resources.

Toly Rinberg is a member of the group’s website tracking committee.

“This change happened a few weeks ago, and we’ve seen paragraphs - introductory paragraphs - that now focus more on job creation and economic benefits of oil and gas production, and we’ve seen removal of sections on environmental and public health risks of shale and oil and natural gas production," he says.

He says EDGI submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the GAO about these changes.

The report states that the group received this response from the GAO: "We have no records responsive to your request. Please be advised that the key issues page is periodically updated to reflect recent GAO work. As an agency responsible to the Congress, GAO is not subject to FOIA. However, GAO's disclosure policy follows the spirit of the act consistent with GAO's duties and functions as an agency with primary responsibility to the Congress."

Rinberg says every two years, the GAO writes a report on its high risk programs.

"So this isn't a surprising thing necessarily," Rinberg says. "I want to emphasize that it's not like we caught the Government Accountability Office or something like that, that's not our intent at all. We just believe that it's revealing and useful to compare the difference."

In an email, Chuck Young, managing director of the GAO's public affairs office, says these pages were changed because they updated their annual high risk list:

I can see why the group that issues this has a major disclaimer on their first page – they seem to have completely missed the expansion of oversight of environmental issues. The pages were changed because we updated our annual  High Risk List to show the Department of Interior has been backsliding from past reforms, using outdated policies and procedures, even in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon incident. Also, unlike most other federal agencies, GAO is in the legislative branch and works only for Congress, not for the White House.

How to track a government website

EDGI's Toly Rinberg says that although the public can access millions of government websites, there are too many for the layperson to keep track of any changes. That’s why EDGI uses software to do just that.

A before-and-after screenshot of a page on the EPA website. The updated version eliminated all uses of the word "climate."
Credit Environmental Data & Governance Initiative

He says they're currently analyzing 25,000 government agency websites with that software, including EPA, DOE, NASA, NOAA, and others.

Once the software notes a change, an analyst decides whether it's significant.

“I think the value of us looking at the comparison and the difference between these pages allows someone to analyze that and say, you know, ‘what is the trend here?’” says Rinberg.

Erasing mentions of climate change

In addition to the changes to the GAO website, Rinberg says there have been recent significant shifts in tone when it comes to climate change across several government websites.

“We saw an EPA initiative that used to be called ‘Climate-Ready Water Utilities’ now renamed to ‘Creating Resilient Water Utilities.’ And from that page, all 19 mentions of the word ‘climate’ were removed; replaced with terms like ‘extreme weather’ or ‘resilient.’”

Rinberg says his group also found that mentions of greenhouse gas emissions had been eliminated from the website of the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.