Zombie Truck Theater: A House Science Committee Hearing

September 12, 2018 | 2:51 pm
Public Domain
Jonna Hamilton
Former Contributor

The issue of glider trucks, new truck bodies with old polluting engines, has come up in Congress yet again.  This time, it moves over to the House Science Committee, a place where Chairman Lamar Smith tends to hang science (and sometimes scientists) out to dry.

If the Science Committee was, well, different, this hearing would be an opportunity to examine the scientific facts underlying the issue of allowing unlimited glider trucks on our nation’s roads, facts which clearly show that these vehicles are dangerous to public health.  Instead, I expect it to focus on the false narrative that political leadership at EPA, glider manufacturer Fitzgerald, and more recently, Steve Milloy, founder of the climate and science-skeptic blog Junk Science, have been putting forward – that glider trucks help small businesses and are no more polluting than new, more expensive, trucks.

The witness list shows that this hearing is just meant to be legislative theater for the Chairman. The Republicans have invited the trade association of the independent truckers (OOIDA, basically the only mainstream industry group that has always supported the glider rule repeal) and Dr. Richard Belzer, an economist for hire, who was hired by Fitzgerald to write a “straw Regulatory Impact Analysis” that was submitted to the agency – he will undoubtedly parrot their talking points in the hearing. The final witness for the majority is Linda Tsang from the Congressional Research Service, which I like to call the library for Congress, is a non-partisan research and analysis service arm for Congress (let’s hear it for librarians!) – this is an interesting pick as she has not written anything publicly available on gliders, so it’s unclear what her specific expertise will be.  The minority (Democrats) were allowed to invite one witness – Dr. Paul Miller, the Deputy Director and Chief Scientist of the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management (NESCAUM), which is a coordinating body for air quality regulators in the northeast.  Note that Paul is the only scientist who was asked to testify at this hearing.

What is this hearing about?

Good question, and it’s one we have been asking ourselves since we first heard about the hearing.  We have a couple of hypotheses:

  1. Chairman Smith has routinely used his position to give a stage to industry interests and fringe perspectives that align with his, and now this administration’s deregulatory agenda. Fitzgerald is just the latest actor to somehow curry favor and use the Committee to relitigate environmental protections.
  2. This hearing is really about undermining the science done at EPA and gives the Republicans a stage to question EPA’s methodical testing of glider trucks (please note, however, that no witnesses from EPA were invited to testify).
  3. All of the above.

Isn’t this a regulatory issue?  Why is Congress getting involved at this point?

Congress has been playing in the glider vehicle space for a little while, but it’s really heated up recently.  One reason for this is a recent letter lead by Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL and member of the Science Committee), who reiterated many of the same talking points OOIDA and Fitzgerald have used in pressing for an exemption to environmental protections for these dirty trucks. Another is that Steve Milloy, an industry shill and longtime opponent of regulation, has been combing over emails sent between agency officials and outside parties about EPA’s testing of glider vehicles last fall, attempting to make mountains of molehills in his quest for deregulation.

If you’ve read previous UCS blogs on gliders, you may remember that when then-Administrator Pruitt began the process of repealing the rule that limits glider truck production at the behest of Fitzgerald there was a (now discredited and withdrawn) “study” done by not-scientists at the Tennessee Technical University (TTU) that was bought and paid for by Fitzgerald.  EPA documented the issues with the TTU study and also did their own study of the emissions from in-use glider trucks (glider trucks that have been on the road a while).  EPA doesn’t have tractor trailers just sitting around to test, nor do they have the budget to buy a bunch of them, so when they need tractors to test, they typically borrow them while they put them through their paces.  This time, Volvo helped them procure some gliders to test and there is a mad conspiracy theory out there that Volvo influenced the results because they helped find the trucks for EPA to test.

Several Congressmen have latched onto this story line and sent letters to the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) asking them to open an investigation into the procurement of the trucks (the OIG recently said they would start an audit, not a full investigation).  In addition, Chairman Smith has now sent a couple of letters requesting specific correspondence between EPA and Volvo and calling into question the “scientific integrity and validity” of the EPA, despite the fact that a top Trump appointee has already notified Chairman Smith that he doesn’t see any untoward influence in the study and that it was conducted according to standard lab practices. Furthermore, as we have already pointed out, the EPA study merely confirms the obvious: these trucks pollute like crazy.

Attacking an empty chair

Tomorrow, I expect that we will see some reprisal of the Congressional letters to the agency play out.  Unfortunately, each Science Committee member will be the center of their own one-man show, since they are seeking no input from the agency itself.  If the committee were interested in actual oversight and upholding their constitutional role, the hearing would be focused on the merits of the testing and allow the agency an opportunity to detail the methodology and rigor of the testing protocol which shows how deadly glider trucks are. Instead, this will be another showboat for the Science Committee members to delegitimize the critically important and lifesaving science done by career staff at EPA. Unfortunately, conducting “oversight” without the agency present isn’t a new play for the Science Committee.

In his quest to find fire where there is no smoke, Chairman Smith will once again discover that no bogeyman exists. Despite his efforts to reanimate this issue, citizens, scientists, lawmakers, and businesses know zombie trucks should not be operating on our roads and polluting our air. The science is stating the obvious here…if only the Science Committee were interested in listening to it.