Opinion: Don’t hold it against us – how disclaimers undermine the value of government reports

Todd Myers of the Washington Policy Center offers three recent examples of how politicians and the media frequently ignore these limits to make bold, but unsubstantiated, claims.

Todd Myers of the Washington Policy Center offers three recent examples of how politicians and the media frequently ignore these limits to make bold, but unsubstantiated, claims

Todd Myers
Washington Policy Center

Todd Myers
Todd Myers

I read a lot of government reports (in other news, I am underpaid). Some reports contain excellent information and I frequently rely on government data on energy and environment issues.

Other reports, however, use the guise of objectivity to conceal a political agenda. These reports and announcements often have amusing disclaimers that reveal that politics, not science, is the key factor.

Here are three – two from the last week alone – that stand out as masterpieces of this genre.

The Biden Administration report on salmon runs on the Columbia and Snake rivers

Last week the Biden Administration released a report on restoring salmon runs in the Columbia Basin, including a call to destroy the four Lower Snake River dams. At the end of the first page, they include this disclaimer:

“This report does not constitute a regulatory or policy requirement and does not supersede or modify existing analyses in ESA recovery plans, viability assessments, 5-year reviews, or ESA consultation documents. The report also does not assess the impacts of implementing any rebuilding measures nor suggest funding sources, needed authorizations, or regulatory compliance measures required for implementation.”

In simple terms, they made no effort to determine if their recommendations were feasible or what the impacts of following them would be. Put another way, the Biden Administration officials who wrote the study were not bound by reality. Good to know.

The Pacific Coast Collaborative climate agreement

The governors of California, Oregon, and Washington joined the Premier of British Columbia to sign a new agreement they say is designed to fight climate change. The second sentence of the statement proclaims, “This moment demands West Coast leaders once again step up and demonstrate regional leadership to strengthen physical, social, and natural infrastructure to meet the compelling and undeniable challenge of climate change.” The penultimate paragraph, however, takes a different tone:

“This document shall have no legal effect, impose no legally binding obligation enforceable in any court of law or other tribunal of any sort, nor create any funding expectation; nor shall Pacific Coast jurisdictions and cities be responsible for the actions of third parties or associates. This document does not change, influence, or create new legal relationships among Pacific Coast jurisdictions and cities.”

Although they say the moment demands the leaders “step up,” the agreement does not, in fact, require them to step up. Got it.

The Department of Ecology’s cost-benefits analysis for the low-carbon fuel standard

According to analysis completed for the Washington State Department of Ecology, next year the new low-carbon fuel standard (LCFS) will increase gas prices by about a penny a gallon, increasing to 19 cents per gallon by 2031. This is at odds with claims by the governor and others that the LCFS would have no impact on gas prices.

In that political environment, one can forgive the squeamishness of the contractor Ecology hired to complete the cost-benefit analysis of the LCFS. The disclaimer at the beginning of the report is a doozy:

“Although reasonable and customary steps have been taken to generate an accurate report, BRG does not warrant or guarantee the accuracy, reliability, timeliness, or completeness of the information presented in this report and assumes no liability or responsibility for any error or omission in such content. The contents of this report are provided on a ‘for information only’ basis. This report does not constitute or contain any legal opinion or advice, nor does it constitute or contain any fairness, investment, or accounting opinion or advice.”

There are a couple of things going on here. First is the standard caution that goes with making claims that might be used for investments and the desire of the contractor to avoid potential liability. Additionally, the report clearly contradicts the statement of politicians who pushed the LCFS (but is almost perfectly in line with projections we made when the law was passed), so the contractor is giving itself some wiggle room.

To some extent, these disclaimers are useful because they set limits for the reliability of the reports. Frequently, however, politicians and the media ignore these limits to make bold, but unsubstantiated, claims. Government staff and politicians also use the disclaimers as an excuse to make arguments that are not bounded by reality. It is another warning that when reading government reports or proclamations, there is often a large gap between the claims and reality.

Todd Myers is the director of the Center for the Environment at the Washington Policy Center.


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