EPA has long relied on competitive merits-based grant-making to support activities that deliver critical environmental improvements, pollution reduction, and public education. Every previous administration, both Republican and Democratic, approached spending its federal grant dollars as a non-partisan merits-based exercise, free of politics and of the temptation by political appointees to use grant funds to advance ideological agendas. Grant applications were evaluated by career professional staff exclusively for their technical merit and not on the basis of partisan political considerations.
Now, the Trump EPA has assigned a political appointee to review all grant solicitations and awards. A directive from Administrator Pruitt assigns this task to John Konkus, who is the deputy associate administrator in EPA’s Office of Public Affairs, a position he occupies as a political appointee and not as a non-partisan career civil servant.
Mr. Konkus told staff he is looking for certain phrases, such as “climate change” – a signal that he and the Administrator might deny grant applications for research on climate science and adaptation. At a time when leading members of the Trump Administration publicly deny climate change, this will both reduce the amount of information the world has about how the climate is changing and make it harder for communities to protect themselves from the changes that are already threatening them.
After the Interior Department took a similar step, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, issued a statement condemning these actions and the effect they will have on “public confidence in our nation’s research enterprise.”
Mr. Konkus’ status as a political appointee brings partisanship to a previously technical, non-partisan task. He previously worked on President Trump’s campaign. After joining EPA, he sought permission to work as a media consultant for at least two outside clients. Though he later decided not to pursue the work, the fact that he sought approval increases the worry that his outside work overlaps with a political agenda.
For more information on change to EPA’s processes, please see our other Mission Tracker posts, including:
This post was edited for clarity on Jan. 16, 2020.