EPA Science Advisory Board’s Job Gets Harder—and More Important—By the Minute

April 8, 2020 | 4:34 pm
Genna Reed
Former Director of Policy Analysis

As the nation is thrust into the most devastating period of the COVID-19 outbreak, EPA is pushing forward several destructive policy decisions while loosening enforcement requirements for polluters—even as emerging evidence shows that air pollution is making the pandemic more deadly. In the midst of all of this, the EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) is attempting to review recent deregulatory actions, despite new changes to its own decisionmaking process issued by Administrator Wheeler earlier this year.

In February, Wheeler issued a memo that will take away the ability of the board to collaboratively decide which proposed rules require the board’s scientific expertise. Previously, the 44 SAB members decided democratically and after public comment at a public meeting whether to review EPA actions. This is now being transformed into a much more secretive process. According to Wheeler’s memo, the decisionmaking process will instead be a closed-door, once-a-month briefing between the SAB chair, Dr. Michael Honeycutt, up to eight other hand-selected SAB members, and EPA staff. After this meeting, the SAB chair has the sole power of deciding, within a 10 day period, “whether there are scientific aspects of the proposed rule that may merit SAB review.” This change in policy gives the SAB chair unprecedented power, turning the decisionmaking process from a consensus-building activity into a unilateral, secretive one.

If you don’t believe UCS’s critique of the process, you can just listen to one-third of SAB’s members who have offered their own concerns about the new process, according to documents obtained by E&E News. Among the critiques, members wrote:

  • it “has the potential to strip the SAB of any realistic oversight”
  • the process “would deeply compromise the ability of the SAB to provide independent reviews of the adequacy and scientific basis of proposed regulations, one of the principal duties listed in its charter”
  • “Recent years represent a departure both in terms of the quality and completeness of content transmitted by EPA to the SAB and also the timeliness with which this has occurred. However, the development of a new process that is inconsistent with ERDAA [Environmental Research, Development and Demonstration Authorization Act] does not address these concerns.”
  • “The new process appears to try and fix a problem that did not exist and may in fact work against the stated ‘needs’ for timely and early notification, transparency, and coordination.”
  • “I think that every board member should have the opportunity to express their opinion in the interest of transparency and consistency. We all have different expertise and sensitivity to scientific issues.”

The SAB met last week for the first time since the memo and process change were issued and the chair, Dr. Honeycutt, used a hybrid process to ask the SAB whether it should review two EPA actions that are already well-past the proposed rule stage, the Lead & Copper Rule issued in the fall and the methane emissions rule which is about to undergo OMB review. The Board voted to review the Lead & Copper Rule and not to review the methane emissions rule, though a separate motion revealed that it would have chosen to review the latter rule had it been given the opportunity sooner in the process. While Honeycutt narrowed the list for the full SAB to vote on this time, the next time this occurs it will only happen with a group of chair-selected members, behind closed doors, so the public won’t have access to the vote tallies or rationale for selecting policies to review. This is not in line with the spirit of transparency and science-based guidance that the SAB has operated under for decades.

It leaves us to wonder whether this process change is a deliberate response to some of the SAB’s critical reviews of EPA actions in recent months. Late last year, it described a proposed rule that decreases federal protections on wetlands and streams from pollution as something that “neglects established science.” Additionally, the SAB has been highly critical of a rule that will restrict the use of science in the EPA decisionmaking process, calling it a “license to politicize the scientific evaluation” process.

But why does Administrator Wheeler even care to undermine SAB’s process when he doesn’t consider its recommendations anyway? Last week EPA moved to roll back the vehicle emissions standards despite SAB’s criticism of the rule. The agency is also moving ahead with its restricted science rule, issuing a supplemental notice for a 30-day comment period, that was just extended an additional 30 days, during a pandemic. While the EPA claims it will incorporate SAB feedback, the board has not had adequate time to inform the process—and even if it does respond to the supplemental rule, it will not have done so in a public forum with opportunity for comment, as is established practice.

Wheeler has moved to break with precedent by turning what should be consensus decisions into secret meetings, and the continuation of his predecessor’s policy to bar EPA-funded scientists from serving on committees is arguably illegal. The First Circuit Court of Appeals recently issued a panel opinion on the former administrator’s directive that may move forward UCS’s argument that EPA funding is not an unacceptable conflict of interest.

Now, the SAB is asking for nominations to fill several spots on the FY21 main committee and subcommittees, due May 1. There are 17 members first appointed under the Trump administration whose first terms will be ending this September and can be renewed for a second three-year term. This includes the chair, Honeycutt, who as recently as last month suggested that he hasn’t yet decided to serve another term. As EPA political appointees have done almost everything in their power to control the makeup and decisions made by the SAB over the past three years, it is important that the scientific community get involved to stand up for science-based decisionmaking. Qualified experts must fill empty spots so that the agency can continue to hear the critical feedback it needs to ensure it is using science to protect the environment and public health.