The EPA has removed qualified academics from its advisory panels and replaced them with industry scientists – including at least one known for being a climate change skeptic. These panels guide the EPA on important decisions, such as what level of air pollution is safe for children or what effect exposure to a toxic chemical has on pregnant women.
Advisory committees provide the EPA independent, expert advice on an array of issues the agency must consider and tasks it must perform that entail science-intensive analysis or judgment. These include advising the agency on health-based ambient air quality standards, determinations of acceptable risk levels for exposure to toxic chemicals, the net carbon impact of burning biomass, studies of the impact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water, and how to value human life for purposes of economic analysis.
EPA’s prowess as a science agency has been widely acknowledged over much of its history, and it has relied on panels of independent and highly qualified scientists – often leaders in their respective fields – to sustain or complement its own resources and expertise. Scientists who serve on these panels are noted both for their outstanding qualifications and accomplishments and for their independence from financial self-interest that might arise from their being employed by or affiliated with private sector businesses that are regulated by the EPA. Instead, they are usually employees of universities or similar research institutions, affiliations that have assured the agency – and the public – that their work is disinterested and objective.
For the first time in the agency’s history, then Administrator Pruitt inverted this approach. In an Oct. 31, 2017 directive, Pruitt removed scientists from several of these panels on the basis of a novel interpretation of what constituted a conflict of interest. Specifically, he decreed that no one will be allowed to serve as an advisor who has received a grant from the EPA – a pre-condition that mostly affects academic experts who routinely receive government funding for research.
This pre-condition, however, has long been discredited by the federal courts. For example, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has stated: “Working for or receiving a grant from [an agency], or co-authoring a paper with a person affiliated with the department, does not impair a scientist’s ability to provide technical, scientific peer review of a study sponsored by . . . one of its agencies.” Cargill, Inc., v. United States, 173 F. 3d 323, 339 (1999). The Administration’s theory features no such exclusion for scientists and other experts working for a private industry even if the industry is regulated by the EPA.
As a result, membership of these committees has changed dramatically, with Union of Concerned Scientists reporting that since 2017, the proportion of leading academics on the Science Advisory Board has fallen from 79% to 47% and the proportion of industry-employed scientists has risen from 6% to 22%.
Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler is continuing Pruitt’s initiative of jeopardizing the quality of scientific advice that the EPA will receive from those panels. In January 2019, Wheeler appointed John Christy, a controversial professor of atmospheric science, to the Science Advisory Board. Christy rejects the fact that climate change is largely driven by human activity and has been outspoken against regulating greenhouse gas emissions. As reported by E&E News, Christy stated that he would use his new position on the board to try to convince other members that global rising temperatures are caused by nature rather than people. By appointing to the EPA’s expert committees skeptics like Christy who are intending to use the role to spread skepticism, Wheeler is undermining the scientific expertise those committees are meant to provide and is creating a threat to the effectiveness of the EPA’s standards for protecting human health and the environment.
Furthermore, the Washington Post recently reported that the White House is considering proposing a new federal panel: the Presidential Committee on Climate Security. If formed, the committee would conduct an adversarial review of recent scientific and national security studies in order to advise the President on whether climate change poses a threat to national security. A leaked discussion paper regarding the draft executive order to form the committee states that William Happer, a National Security Council senior director and climate skeptic, is leading the effort. Not only is Happer not a trained climate scientist, he has publicly stated that he does not believe that carbon-dioxide is a pollutant and is active in advocacy efforts to reject climate science.
Taken together with the actions at the EPA, if the White House establishes the Committee on Climate Security, the administration would be posed to ignore scientific consensus on climate change’s likely impacts on the US in three key areas: national security, human health, and the environment.