EPA Moves to Handcuff Its Scientists

March 4, 2020
Photo: EPA
Michael Halpern
Former contributor

The Environmental Protection Agency yesterday announced plans to restrict how science can inform decisions on air pollution, chemical safety, vehicle emissions, and more. EPA political leaders want the option to force agency scientific experts to ignore some of the best evidence we have about how pollution makes people sick. Soon, a formal proposal will kick off a 30-day public comment period, and UCS will provide resources to help you submit an effective comment.

EPA is trying to put its thumb on the scales and discount research it finds inconvenient. They know that the Clean Air Act and other laws require decisions to be based on science, so they are trying to redefine science.

This is “part two” of a rule originally announced by disgraced EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. The proposal was developed by political staff, keeping agency scientists fully in the dark. The EPA wants to weigh the importance of scientific information based on its public availability, not its scientific merit. There may be a political reason to create this distinction, but there is certainly not a scientific one.

Scientific organizations universally opposed the proposal, urging the EPA to withdraw it. The EPA’s Science Advisory Board initially called it a “license to politicize” science and said that it would compromise the agency’s decision-making process. The National Academies of Science offered its help (and was rebuffed). At a recent congressional hearing, not a single non-governmental witness would support it.

The EPA had initially hoped to fast track this act of self-sabotage. But 600,000 public comments from scientists and science supporters required the agency to spend many months doing its best to respond to flaws and missing analysis.

Nearly two years later, the EPA is unable to articulate the problem it is trying to solve. The EPA is still silent regarding how much compliance would cost or who would pay for it. And incredibly, the agency made the original proposal worse by significantly expanding the types of research that it covers.

Tobacco industry lobbyists have wanted these kinds of restrictions for decades. They tried and failed to pass legislation through Congress that would have accomplished this goal. And now, they are trying to get sympathetic political appointees at EPA to do the same.

UCS will soon have more detailed analysis of the proposal, as well as a guide for scientists on filing useful public comments, which are due 30 days from when the rule is formally published. Public comments are helpful both for identifying flaws in the proposal which the EPA is required to consider before finalizing it, and for any future legal challenge.