Scott Pruitt is ousting the EPA’s independent science advisers and bringing in industry researchers.
Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, is taking unprecedented steps to push scientists out of his office.
Earlier this month, we learned via the Washington Post that Pruitt may soon be removing science advisers on advisory boards who have received grants from the EPA. “If we have individuals who are on those boards, sometimes receiving money from the agency … that to me causes questions on the independence and the veracity and the transparency of those recommendations that are coming our way,” he said at a Heritage Foundation meeting.
The move would be another step in Pruitt’s efforts to drastically whittle down EPA’s work as an environmental regulator, as Vox’s David Roberts outlined this summer.
Pruitt has met almost exclusively with fossil fuel interests while freezing out his agency’s own scientists from reviewing regulatory rollbacks. He’s also started laying the groundwork to challenge EPA’s own legal authority to regulate greenhouse gases.
And EPA is doing most of this in secret, with Pruitt going as far as to build a $25,000 secret phone booth at the agency’s headquarters (a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF, in government-speak).
Now Pruitt is fishing for pretenses to push out scientists that review the EPA’s work. An EPA official said the agency expects to make a formal announcement on the scientific advisory boards on October 31.
Independent science advisers are already being forced out
EPA maintains a stable of scientific advisers, including those that advise the administrator and others that review the integrity of the agency’s research programs, and with the move to scrutinize EPA grant recipients, many advisers from universities are in the crosshairs.
The dismantling of the 18-member Board of Scientific Counselors, which advises EPA research, began in May with the dismissal of 12 of its experts who came from various fields of environmental science and policy. The move caught them by surprise. “I’ve never heard of any circumstance where someone didn’t serve two consecutive terms,” then-board member Robert Richardson, an environmental economist at Michigan State University, toldthe Washington Post.
“It effectively wipes out the BOSC and leaves it free for a complete reappointment,” Deborah Swackhamer, the current chair of the board’s executive committee and an emeritus professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Minnesota, also told the Washington Post.
In June, the EPA declined to renew dozens of other science advisers whose terms expire in August. The EPA did not respond to requests for comment.
The agency’s science advisers ensure the credibility of the information the EPA uses to build its regulations, ranging from the risks of infection to cost-benefit analyses of regulations. How these scientific foundations are laid shape the policies that result. The science advisers have a wide scope of input and are crucial to the EPA’s self-evaluation.
An EPA official who asked not to be named explained that the agency brings scientists on board from industry and academia to harness their individual scientific judgements, not as representatives of their institutions. Researchers are appointed to a three-year term, with one chance to renew, though the majority serve close to six years, according to the official.
“The Science Advisory Board conducts independent reviews of just about anything of consequence that has a scientific underpinning,” the official said.
This appointment cycle is staggered so that the EPA’s scientific advisory board has a 20 percent turnover rate each year, and the hiring of scientists to conduct reviews is usually apolitical.
“Typically, up till now, it’s always been independent of administrations,” the official said, adding that letting scientists go en masse is highly unusual. “As far as I can tell, this is the first time this has happened.”
Meanwhile, Pruitt is packing the EPA with industry interests
Pruitt’s efforts to push scientists out of the EPA are being complemented by steps to bring industry interests on board, particularly in management roles.
The New York Times reported that political appointee Nancy Beck in EPA’s toxic chemicals office, formerly with a chemical industry trade group, was instrumental in writing a rule rolling back monitoring of a hazardous chemical.
Michael Dourson, who was this week confirmed by the Senate to be Beck’s boss, was already working at the EPA even before the vote went through, drawing the ire of lawmakers. His consulting company had a long list of clients in the chemicals industry.
Coal industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler was nominated earlier this month to be Pruitt’s second in command. Samantha Dravis, who now leads EPA’s deregulation efforts, was a former official at the Republican Attorneys General Association, which filed lawsuits against the EPA. A former top lawyer at the American Petroleum Institute, Erik Baptist, is now the EPA’s senior deputy general counsel.
Though the White House’s proposal to gut EPA’s budget by one-third is unlikely to make it through Congress, these personnel changes portend a drastic reshaping of EPA’s work in protecting the environment.
Some of the scientists who remain are being told to keep quiet about climate change
This week, the EPA abruptly canceled presentations from some of its scientists at an event on climate change without explanation.
“It’s definitely a blatant example of the scientific censorship we all suspected was going to start being enforced at EPA,” John King, a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, told the New York Times.
The event would have been inconvenient for Pruitt’s efforts to discredit climate change science and to dismantle regulations that stem from it.
Michael Cox, a former EPA climate adviser, told Huffington Post’s Highline that these developments are all a continuation of the long-running antagonism Pruitt has had for his agency.
“I’ve worked with six administrations—from Reagan’s until this one—and we’ve had differences in opinion, but there was never the feeling anyone was coming in to dismantle the organization and really do damage to it. But we felt like that from the very first time Scott Pruitt had an all-staff meeting,” Cox said. “It was very clear that he was talking down to us. We were the EPA. We were the bad guys. We were the problem.”