The Trump administration is slowly filling positions below the cabinet officer level in the “mission agencies” of the federal government (e.g., EPA, NOAA , Interior, DOE, etc. whose job it is to implement a specific set of statutory mandates). The appointed individuals are leading day-to-day decision-making on policies from public health and safety to environmental protection to critical applied science programs. In other words, the decisions these appointees make will affect everyone in the country.
The job of the agencies and their political leadership is to represent the public interest. It is not to serve the private interests of particular industries and companies, or even to push political viewpoints, but to implement legislative mandates in the interest of the American public. After all, who else but government can do this? Our laws call for the water and air to be clean, our workers and communities to be safe, our environment to be healthy and our science to be robust and fundamental to better policy and decision-making. That is what mission agencies are tasked to do.
So, what have we seen so far? To be sure, the Administration has nominated and appointed some qualified individuals with good experience and little apparent conflicts of interest. But unfortunately, that is not the norm. In my mind, most of the key appointments with responsibility for science-based policymaking fall into three categories:
- The conflicted: Individuals who have spent a significant part of their careers lobbying the agencies they are now appointed to lead to obtain more favorable policies to benefit specific industries or companies—and who will likely do so again once they leave the government. These individuals have a conflict of interest because of these connections. Despite President Trump’s call to “drain the swamp,” these appointees are well-adapted and key species in that very swamp (sorry, my ecologist background showing through).
- The opposed: Individuals who have spent much of their careers arguing against the very mission of the agencies they now lead. This group is not entirely separate from the first, because often they made those arguments on behalf of corporate clients pushing for less accountability to or oversight from the American public. But further, they have opposed the very role played by the federal agencies they are appointed to serve. While they may have conflicts of interest as in (1), they also have an expressed anti-agency agenda that strongly suggests they will work to undermine the agency’s mission.
- The unqualified: Individuals who are wholly unqualified because they haven’t the experience or training or credentials that are requisite for the job. Again, these appointees may also have conflicts of interest, and opposite political agendas to the missions of the agencies, but they also have no real place leading a complex organization that requires specific expertise.
With more than 4,000 possible political appointments to federal agencies, I of course cannot cover them all. In fact, scanning through the list of those 600 appointments requiring Senate confirmation, less than one-third have even been nominated for Senate action. But here is a disturbing set of nominees or appointments that undermine science-based policymaking.
William Wehrum is a lawyer and lobbyist nominated to lead the EPA Office of Air and Radiation (OAR). He previously worked at EPA during the G.W. Bush Administration. UCS opposed his nomination then. Mr. Wehrum’s corporate clients include Koch Industries, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, and others in the auto and petrochemical industries. He has been a vocal spokesperson against addressing climate change under the Clean Air Act, which would be part of his responsibility as OAR director. While he has advocated for devolving more authority to the states for addressing air pollution generally, he also opposed granting California a waiver under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles. Mr. Wehrum has also been directly involved, both as a lobbyist for industry and during his previous stint at EPA, in efforts to subvert the science concerning mercury pollution from power plants, restrictions on industrial emissions, as well as lead, soot and regional haze regulations.
Dr. Michael Dourson has been nominated to be EPA Assistant Administrator for Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. He is well known by the chemical industry, having spent years working as a toxicologist for hire for industries from tobacco to pesticides and other chemicals. Dr. Dourson has argued that the pesticide chlorpyrifos is safe despite a large body of science to the contrary. He has advocated for the continued use of a toxic industrial chemical called TCE, which the EPA determined was carcinogenic to humans by all routes of exposure. [TCE was the chemical linked to leukemia in children in the 1998 film “A Civil Action.”] When asked about his controversial chemical risk assessment company, TERA, receiving funding from chemical companies, Dourson responded: “Jesus hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors. He had dinner with them.”
Dr. Nancy Beck, appointed to the position of EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator, now leads the agency’s effort to implement the Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act, which was signed into law last year. Dr. Beck was previously senior staff with the American Chemistry Council, the trade organization that worked very hard for years to weaken the rules protecting the public from toxic chemicals. The result? The new rules from the EPA are far weaker than those developed by the professional staff at the agency and remarkably similar to the position the industry favored, while dismissing the positions of other members of the public and other organizations including UCS. Previously, Dr. Beck worked in the G.W. Bush Administration at the Office of Management and Budget. During that part of her career Dr. Beck was called out by the U.S. House Science and Technology Committee for attempting to undermine EPA’s assessment of toxic chemicals and her draft guidance on chemical safety evaluations was called “fundamentally flawed” by the National Academy of Sciences.
Lest you think that the conflicted are all at EPA, consider David Zatezalo, nominated to be Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Health and Safety. He was formerly the chairman of Rhino Resources, a Kentucky coal company that was recipient of two letters from the Mine Safety and Health Administration for patterns of violations. Subsequently a miner was killed when a wall collapsed. The company was fined.
David Bernhardt has been confirmed as the Deputy Secretary of Interior. He was DOI Solicitor under the George W. Bush administration. In 2008, weeks before leaving office, Bernhardt shifted controversial political appointees who had ignored or suppressed science into senior civil service posts. While at his law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, he represented energy and mining interests and lobbied for California’s Westlands Water District. His position in the firm—he was a partner—and the firm’s financial relationship with Cadiz Inc. (which is involved in a controversial plan to pump groundwater in the Mojave desert and sell it in southern California) has led to one group calling him a “walking conflict of interest.” Bernhardt also represented Alaska in its failed 2014 suit to force the Interior department to allow exploratory drilling at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Susan Combs has been nominated to be the Assistant Secretary of Interior for Policy, Management, and Budget. She was previously Texas’s agricultural commissioner and then the state’s Comptroller where she often fought with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over Endangered Species Act issues. Notably she has a history of meddling in science-based policy issues like species protections. She has been deeply engaged in battling for property rights and against public interest protections; she once called proposed Endangered Species Act listings as “incoming Scud missiles” against the Texas economy. Of course, protecting endangered species, biodiversity and public lands is a major responsibility of the Department of Interior.
Daniel Simmons has been nominated to be the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Office of Energy Efficiency to foster development of renewable and energy-efficient technologies. He was previously Vice President at the Institute for Energy Research, a conservative organization that promotes fossil fuel use, opposed the Paris Climate Accord, and opposes support for renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. He also worked for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) as director for their natural resources task force. ALEC is widely known for advocating against energy efficiency measures.
Sam Clovis, the nominee for Undersecretary of Agriculture for Research, Education and Economics, effectively the department’s chief scientists, is not a scientist or an economist nor does he have expertise in any scientific discipline relevant to his proposed position at USDA—like food science, nutrition, weed science, agronomy, entomology. Despite this lack of qualifications, he does deny the evidence of a changing climate. He was a talk radio host with a horrendous record of racist, homophobic and other bigoted views which should be disqualifying in themselves.
Albert Kelly has been appointed a senior advisor to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and the Chair of the Superfund Task Force. He is an Oklahoma banker with no experience with Superfund or environmental issues, but he was a major donor to Mr. Pruitt’s political campaigns. So far the task force has focused on “increasing efficiencies” in the Superfund program.
Over at NASA, the nominee for Administrator is Rep. James Bridenstine, (R. OK). While he certainly has government and public policy experience (a plus), he does not have a science background, a management background or experience with the space program. He has called aggressively for NASA to focus on space exploration and returning to the moon, rather than its earth science mission. In addition, he has been a strong advocate for privatization of some of the work of the agency. He has questioned the science on climate change and accused the Obama Administration of “gross misallocation of funds” for spending on climate research.
Michael Kratsios is the Deputy Chief Technology Officer and de facto head of Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House. He is a former aide to Silicon Valley executive Peter Thiel and holds a AB in politics from Princeton with a focus on Hellenic Studies. He previously worked in investment banking and with a hedge fund. How this experience qualifies him to be deputy chief technology officer is beyond me.
Can we have science-based policies?
This is by no means a full list of egregious nominees for positions that will have a big impact on our daily lives. So, the question remains, is science-based policy making a thing of the past? Will the conflicted, the opposed, and the unqualified be the pattern for the future?
Fortunately, we can and should fight back. We as scientists, concerned members of the public, and activists can call on our elected officials to oppose these nominees. If they are in place, then they can be held to account by Congress, the courts, and yes, in the court of public opinion. Handing over the fundamental job of protecting the public to champions for regulated industries and political ideologues is wrong for all of us. After all, if industry did protect the public from public health or environmental impacts, then regulatory controls would be superfluous.
We can’t just wring our hands and wish things didn’t go this way. Conflicted, opposed and unqualified they may be, but they are now in public service. Let’s hold them to account.