Timeline: 23 Years of Attempts to Restrict Public Health Science at EPA

May 8, 2020 | 2:33 pm
Klaus Eppele/Adobe Stock
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

The Environmental Protection Agency is advancing a broad proposal to restrict the use of science at the agency with no official public hearings and a limited sixty-day comment period, which ends on May 18 (learn how to file an effective comment here). The rule is the culmination of 25 years of attempts to weaken the Clear Air Act and other critical public health laws.

For the first two decades, these attempts came directly from industry and occasionally from Congress. But the attacks began from inside once polluter-friendly appointees took over the agency at the beginning of the Trump administration. They know they can’t win on the science, so they want to exclude it.

Below is a timeline of attempts to restrict how science is used at EPA. If you see anything missing, drop me a note.

Tobacco lobbyists outline and advance strategy

December 23, 1996: Tobacco industry lawyer Chris Horner writes a memo for his clients at RJ Reynolds Tobacco outlining a strategy to “reform agency science” at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  The memo lays out their proposed plan to “construct explicit procedural hurdles that the Agency must follow in issuing scientific reports.” The goal of this proposed plan? To prevent the EPA from enacting regulations to protect public health. The tobacco lawyer advised that in order to limit EPA’s rulemaking authority, a process should be established to require that the EPA only consider science that is “transparent” and “able to be reproduced.”

July 18, 1997: EPA passes new air pollution standards (1997 NAAQS for Ozone and Particulate Matter) under the Clean Air Act after a review of the available scientific evidence. Two studies that provided evidence for this decision were the Harvard Six Cities Study and the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Prevention Study II. Both studies showed that exposure to fine particle air pollution was linked with increased mortality and adverse health effects.

October 21, 1998: A rider, known as the ‘Shelby Amendment’, was added to the Omnibus Appropriations Act of 1999 and passed through Congress. This rider mandated that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) “require federal agencies to ensure that all data produced under a federally funded award will be made available to the public through the procedures established under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).” This amendment was the culmination of efforts from the House committee to gain access to the data that provided the scientific basis of Environmental Protection Agency regulations to strengthen national ambient air quality standards for ozone and particulate matter in 1997.

October 8, 1999: OMB released a revised version of the rule that defined the kinds of ‘data’ that would be made accessible and excluded personal and business-related confidential data.

July 2000: The Health Effects Institute, an organization sponsored by both the EPA and the motor vehicle industry, release an independent reanalysis of the Harvard Six Cities study. Their report validated the results of the Six Cities study and confirmed the robustness of its analysis.

August 1, 2013: The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee issues its first subpoena in over 21 years for underlying data from the scientific studies that were used to develop air pollution regulations, including the Harvard Six Cities Study. The subpoena is not successful.

November 14, 2013: The House Science Committee holds a hearing titled “Strengthening Transparency and Accountability within the Environmental Protection Agency.” In it, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy testifies that the EPA already is and has been embracing transparency through its Scientific Integrity Policy and through rigorous peer review and external advisory committee assessments.

Legislative attempt to restrict science begin

February 6, 2014: Representative David Schweikert (R-AZ) introduces a bill in the House called the “Secret Science Reform Act of 2014 (HR 4012).” This bill is eerily similar to the tobacco memo from 1996 as it also seeks to prohibit the EPA from considering science that is not deemed ‘transparent’ or ‘reproducible.’

February 11, 2014: The House Science Committee holds a hearing titled “Ensuring Open Science at EPA.” One of the hearing’s witnesses is Dr. Tony Cox, an industry consultant who currently chairs the EPA Clean Air Science Advisory Committee, whose testimony belies the reasoning behind the transparency act: to cast doubt on the utility of public health standards, particularly those that seek to limit air pollution.

July 16, 2014: Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) introduces a companion bill in the Senate called “Secret Science Reform Act of 2014 (S. 2613).”

October 3, 2014: The Congressional Budget Office releases its analysis on the “Secret Science Reform Act,” estimating that the cost of implementation would be around $250 million per year for the first few years, with large variances; if EPA were to continue relying on as many scientific studies as it had in recent years, while increasing the collection and dissemination of all the technical information used in such studies as directed by the Act, then implementing the bill would cost at least several hundred million dollars a year.

November 19, 2014: The “Secret Science Act of 2014” passes the Republican-controlled house (237-190). The companion bill (S. 2613) is never voted on by the Senate, and ultimately dies in the Senate.


February 24, 2015: Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chair of the House Science Committee, introduces the “Secret Science Reform Act of 2015 (HR 1030).” Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) once again introduces a companion bill in the Senate called “Secret Science Reform Act of 2015 (S. 544).”

March 18, 2015: The Secret Science Reform Act (HR 1030) passes the Republican-controlled House (241-175).

June 2015: The bill (S. 544) dies in the Senate for the second time.

February 7, 2017: The House Science committee holds a hearing called “Making EPA Great Again,” which included discussion on limiting the science EPA is allowed to consider. In the hearing, Congressman McNerney (D-CA) asks witness Rush Holt, the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “Would the Secret Science Reform Act lessen the influence of politics in the scientific process?” Dr. Holt responds: “No, I mean I think it’s fundamentally substituting a politically originated revision of the process for the scientific process that has grown up over the ages.”

March 8, 2017: Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) introduces the “HONEST Act (HR 1430),” a bill with a new title but the same core substance as the Secret Science Reform Act.

March 28, 2017: A group of science organizations, including AAAS and several universities, send a letter to House Majority Whip McCarthy in strong opposition to the HONEST Act.

March 29, 2017: The “HONEST Act” passes the Republican controlled House (228-194).

June 28, 2017: One of Rep. Lamar Smith’s top staffers on the House Science committee, Richard Yamada, is appointed by President Trump to be deputy assistant administrator for the Office of Research and Development at EPA.

September 12, 2017: Senator Mike Rounds (R-SD) introduces the “HONEST Act (S.1794)” in the Senate, but once again, it is never brought up for a vote and dies in the Senate.

EPA takes up effort to restrict science

January 9, 2018: Frustrated by an inability to codify the restrictions, Rep. Lamar Smith meets with EPA administrator Pruitt to discuss how the EPA could implement “the principles of the HONEST Act without legislative action.” The agenda of the meeting, obtained by the Environmental Defense Fund, shows that “The Congressman would like to discuss potential ways EPA could implement the principals of [the “HONEST Act”] without legislative action” given that the bill was not likely to pass the Senate.

March 11, 2018: In a meeting with the Heritage Foundation, Scott Pruitt announces that the EPA will roll out plans to restrict the agency’s use of science in rulemakings. Just like the tobacco lobbyists’ memo and the three failed bills, this proposed rule would also limit the EPA to only consider scientific studies where the underlying data are made public.

March 20, 2018: A link to an “exclusive interview” on the restricted science rule with Scott Pruitt in a partisan outlet is posted to the EPA website in lieu of a press release.

March 23, 2018: EPA refuses to respond to further media inquiries on the restricted science rule, instead directing reporters to Pruitt’s comments made in the interview. The National Association of Science Writers board sends a letter to EPA objecting to this behavior, calling it “unprofessional and unethical.”

April 17th, 2018: The Union of Concerned Scientists obtained EPA records through three separate FOIA requests that show EPA officials—political appointees who had either worked for Lamar Smith or the chemical industry—were more concerned about the release of industry trade secrets than they were about sensitive private medical information. No concerns were raised about the policy’s impacts on public health protections, nor were there suggestions to receive feedback from the scientific community, which had previously slammed the proposal.

April 19, 2018: EPA sends the proposed restricted science rule to the White House Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) for review, a process that must be completed before the rule can be finalized by the EPA.

April 20, 2018: Meanwhile, after extensive media scrutiny of the contents of the EPA records, the EPA removes the records from the publicly accessible portal on which they were originally posted, claiming that exempt information was inadvertently included.

April 21, 2018: After going through the documents and removing private information, UCS re-posts these FOIA documents online, restoring access to the public.

April 24, 2018: Scott Pruitt signs the proposal for the new rule, titled “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science,” which like all previous efforts would stop the EPA from using scientific studies that did not make the underlying data publicly available. EPA announces that there will be a 30-day period for public comment and no public hearing. In a breach of established procedure, this occurs before the review by the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) is completed.

At the signing event, Administrator Pruitt proclaimed: “The science that we use is going to be transparent, it’s going to be reproducible, it’s going to be analyzed by those in the marketplace, and those that watch what we do can make informed decisions about whether we’ve drawn the proper conclusions or not.” Also present at the event was Steve Milloy, a former tobacco lobbyist who served on President Trump’s EPA transition team and runs a website dedicated to denying climate science. Milloy, who claims to be the intellectual architect of the restricted science rule, told a New Yorker reporter, “Steve Milloy wins! Yay!” Claiming that evidence of adverse health impacts of air pollution were “extremely dubious,” Milloy also told the reporter, “I do have a bias. I’m all for the coal industry, the fossil-fuel industry.”

April 25, 2018: The OIRA review is listed as complete. Not only is this done after the Administrator has already signed the rule, but it also is done on a grossly expedited timeline—4 days (of which only one to two were work days), when the average OIRA review takes 52. Furthermore, while OIRA is only tasked with weighing in on cost-benefit analysis and overlap of a rule with other agencies, this OIRA review added 4 pages to the rule and substantively changed its scientific content.

Law professor Wendy Wagner’s work was cited by EPA in support of the rule. She tells the Atlantic: “I really don’t know what the problem is that they think they’re fixing… They don’t adopt any of our recommendations, and they go in a direction that’s completely opposite, completely different. They don’t adopt any of the recommendations of any of the sources they cite.”

April 27, 2018: In a “highly irregular” move, the White House changes its official timeline to show that its OIRA review of the proposed rule had been finished a day before EPA Administrator Pruitt signed it, instead of one day after.

May 4, 2018: The editors of five major scientific journals including Science, Nature, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Science issue a joint statement opposing the restricted science rule.

The editors write: “It does not strengthen policies based on scientific evidence to limit the scientific evidence that can inform them; rather, it is paramount that the full suite of relevant science vetted through peer review, which includes ever more rigorous features, inform the landscape of decision making. Excluding relevant studies simply because they do not meet rigid transparency standards will adversely affect decision-making processes.”

May 22, 2018: After significant public outcry from both the private sector and scientific and public interest organizations, EPA announces that it will extend the public comment period through August 16, 2018 and hold a public hearing.

June 28, 2018: The EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB), which has not been consulted on the restricted science rule, requests that they be allowed to weigh in. In their letter to Administrator Pruitt, the SAB writes: “Although the proposed rule cites several valuable publications that support enhanced transparency, the precise design of the proposed rule appears to have been developed without a public process for soliciting input specifically from the scientific community.”

July 5, 2018: Scott Pruitt resigns from EPA after numerous ethics scandals.

July 16, 2018: Nearly 70 public health, medical, academic, and scientific groups release a statement strongly opposing the proposed rule.

That same day, the National Academy of Sciences expresses concern about the rule.  “The potential negative consequences for EPA’s ability to take needed regulatory action require more careful examination. We strongly encourage EPA to seek objective, expert guidance on the complexities of this rule and how it would be implemented. As independent and trusted advisers to the nation, the National Academies would be pleased to assist you in this effort.” The EPA never followed up on this offer of assistance.

July 17, 2018: More than 40 people, including representatives of science groups, business groups, public health groups, and academia; members of Congress; and individual advocates speak at a hearing at the EPA headquarters on the EPA proposed rule. Only four witnesses support the rule, one appears ambivalent, and the rest testify in opposition.

August 16, 2018: By the time the comment period for the proposed EPA rule closes, almost 600,000 public comments were submitted, the vast majority of which were in opposition.

October 3, 2018: Email exchanges obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists and reported by the Washington Post show that EPA’s Office of the Science Advisor was left out the process of drafting the “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” rule, even while the office’s director had made himself available to participate.

October 5, 2018: President Trump nominates former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler to take over as EPA administrator.

February 26, 2019: The Senate confirms Andrew Wheeler to serve as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency by a narrow vote (52-47).

April 19, 2019: Ten months after the EPA Science Advisory Board asked to review the restricted science rule, Administrator Wheeler finally requests feedback, but only on a narrow slice of the rule.

June 5, 2019: While discussing the restricted science rule at an EPA Science Advisory Board meeting, Administrator Wheeler suggests that EPA should be more like the Food and Drug Administration and use a “double-blind standard for everything.” This comment demonstrates a breathtaking ignorance of how science works, as it is neither ethical nor possible for scientists to attempt double-blind studies that would expose people unnecessarily to pollution or harmful chemicals.

September 19, 2019: Administrator Wheeler testifies before the House Science committee and says the EPA is still working through the ~600,000 comments and announces a plan for the EPA to release a supplemental to the proposed rule sometime in early 2020.

November 11, 2019: The New York Times obtains and publishes a draft of the proposed supplemental regulation. In their report on the EPA’s attempt to limit science, the Times shows that the EPA plans to widen the scope of the previous rule. Stephen Milloy confirms that “the original goal was to stop EPA from relying on [the Six Cities study and the 1995 American Cancer Society study] unless the data is made public… The reality is, standards are not going to be tightened as long as there’s a Republican in office.” The supplemental rule was submitted to the White House before the EPA Science Advisory Board could weigh in on the original proposal.

November 13, 2019: The House Science committee holds a hearing to discuss the proposed rule and raise awareness about concerns among scientists and public interest advocates. Not a single witness would support the proposal. “The goal should not be transparency or bust,” said the Republican-invited witness Brian Nosek, executive director of the Center for Open Science. If the proposed rule were enacted, thousands of studies would be excluded from the EPA’s evaluation when determining standards, policies and programs to keep us safe,” said MichaelJFox Foundation CEO Todd Sherer.

November 26, 2019: The editors of Science, Nature, PLOS, PNAS, Cell Press, and The Lancet issue a joint statement expressing continued concern about the rule. “Discounting evidence from the decision-making process on the basis that some data are confidential runs counter to the EPA stated mission “to reduce environmental risks…based on the best available scientific information,” they write.

December 10, 2019: E&E News reports on a draft memo from Administrator Wheeler that would limit the ability of the EPA Science Advisory Board to decide what issues merit review and scrutiny. The move is widely recognized to be retribution for the Science Advisory Board’s decision to do a full review of the restricted science rule.

December 31, 2019: On New Year’s Eve, the EPA quietly releases a draft EPA Science Advisory Board analysis that tears into the EPA proposal, calling it a “license to politicize the scientific evaluation required under the statute based on administratively determined criteria for what is practicable.” The Board also says, “There is no justification in the Proposed Rule for why the EPA finds that exiting procedures and norms utilized across the U.S. scientific community, including the federal government, are inadequate.”

February 25, 2020: Administrator Wheeler finalizes the memo that takes away the ability of the EPA Science Advisory Board to collaboratively decide which proposed rules require the board’s scientific expertise, demonstrating his displeasure at the SAB’s review of the restricted science rule.

February 26, 2020: The Hill reports that the White House is reviewing a similar policy to restrict the use of science at the Department of Interior.

March 18, 2020: The EPA formally publishes the supplemental rule in the federal register, giving the public 30 days to comment as the COVID-19 pandemic rages. Tens of millions of people are sheltering in place, and many of the top experts whose work is most relevant to EPA analyses are busy fighting the pandemic. UCS and many other organizations, plus 75 members of Congress, ask the agency to hold virtual public hearings and extend the comment period.

March 25, 2020: UCS announces that we will hold a virtual hearing on EPA’s behalf after the agency refuses repeatedly to hold one.

April 2, 2020: EPA announces it will extend the public comment deadline by 30 days to May 18 but continues to refuse to hold virtual public hearings.

April 14, 2020: Dozens of doctors, public health advocates, former EPA employees, regular people, and Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) provide public comment at the hearing UCS convenes on behalf of EPA. “What EPA does depends on the confidence of the public, it depends on the integrity of the science basis of its decision-making. Both have been put into question by the current proposed regulation,” said Bill Reilly, who served as EPA administrator under George H. W. Bush.

April 24, 2020: The EPA Science Advisory Board releases its final recommendations report on the original rule, which does not address the additional problems raised in the supplemental. Among the board’s many criticisms: meeting the requirement of public accessibility “would be enormously expensive and time consuming at best and could be expected to result in the exclusion of much of the scientific literature from consideration…”