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LOIS HENRY: Regulating the truth and other hot air

| Monday, Nov 29 2010 10:17 AM

Last Updated Monday, Nov 29 2010 10:17 AM

There I was last week, minding my own business (well, sort of), when this morsel of an e-mail popped up from the California Air Resources Board.

CARB will have a workshop Dec. 1 to discuss a new regulation "Prohibiting False Statements."

It goes on to read:

"The contemplated regulation would forbid dishonest statements offered to the Board or to its staff. Such a regulation would be especially beneficial because the Board's rulemaking and rule implementation relies on accurate technical, scientific, and economic data submitted to the Board."

That is so rich it almost makes my teeth hurt.

I mean, seriously, this from an agency whose own staffer was caught in a deception that the very chair of the board, Mary Nichols, tried to cover up until it all unraveled in a public mess.

Not to mention (but of course I will) recent revelations that CARB staff overestimated emissions from heavy equipment by more than 80 percent. Their gross miscalculation -- caught by industry folks, by the way -- may result in the contentious truck and heavy equipment emissions rules being revamped.

Which begs the question of whether this proposed "truth rule" would be better applied to CARB itself?

I e-mailed CARB's spokesperson and asked why they felt the need for the truth rule.

He wrote back: "There have been cases of failing to provide material information that would have altered a decision, and instances of manufacturers presenting false information related to certification."

Many of CARB's programs require those being regulated to self-report information so, perhaps the rule is an attempt to add teeth to those regulations.

But the first part of his answer about failing to provide information that would have altered a decision applies directly to Nichols.

A CARB staffer, Hien Tran, wrote a report detailing the dangers of diesel exhaust, specifically tiny particulate matter (PM2.5) contained in the exhaust, in 2008. It was that report the CARB board used to justify stringent new rules limiting diesel truck emissions.

Turns out Tran lied about having a Ph.D in statistics from UC Davis, a fact that had been pointed out to several upper level CARB staffers, Nichols and at least one other board member early on. But they all kept mum until after the full board voted on the rules.

Nichols later admitted she should have told fellow board members of Tran's deception and his report was scrapped and had to be redone.

First of all, it's shocking to me that Nichols still has her post as she clearly doesn't understand or care about the first rule of public service -- transparency. But now we need a rule to remind everyone that lying is a no no? Come on.

I asked for specifics from the CARB spokesman and got silence in return.

CARB's e-mail caused a bit of a dust-up among truck and heavy equipment industry folks.

Some speculated the proposed rule is CARB's response to an urgency bill signed earlier this fall that requires the agency to be more open and consistent in how it enforces rules and assesses penalties.

The new legislation requires CARB to take "drastic" measures such as providing a clear explanation of how penalties are assessed and putting their policies in writing.

The fact that CARB hadn't been doing that previously is just more evidence of an agency out of control.

The proposed truth rule, some suggested, is based on the agency's belief that testimony before the Legislature on that bill was unfair and inaccurate.

Whatever the impetus of the truth rule, it's ludicrous that we need a regulation to spell out that people musn't lie.

Given CARB's recent history, however, I guess it bears repeating. A lot.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com