Trump administration pushes EPA’s science overhaul to 2020

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Thursday, October 18, 2018

Scott Pruitt, former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, testifies before the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on the environment in April. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

It was one of former Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt’s biggest and most ballyhooed projects. Now the Trump administration just said it won’t get done until 2020.

On Wednesday, the Trump administration indicated it won’t finalize for another year a proposed rule limiting what science that agency can use when it writes new anti-pollution rules.

The proposal would allow the agency to only consult studies in which the underlying data is public when writing those rules. Pruitt unveiledthe measure in a speech at the EPA’s Washington headquarters in April to much fanfare, surrounded by Republican members of Congress eager to support what they see as an effort to make the EPA’s opaque rulemaking process more transparent.

Pruitt, who stepped down from the EPA in July amid numerous accusations of ethical lapses, made it clear he wanted the rule to stick. “This is not a policy,” he said back then. “This is not a memo.”

Now more quietly, the White House listed the science transparency proposal among the EPA’s “long-term actions” in an Office of Management and Budget document outlining the administration’s agenda, which was published Wednesday.

The EPA insisted it is not slow-walking the proposal under the agency’s new head, Andrew Wheeler. “This is not a delay,” EPA spokesman Michael Abboud wrote by email. “The Agency is continuing its internal rulemaking development process for this action.”

But Amit Narang, a regulatory policy expert at the left-leaning advocacy group Public Citizen, said that the move Wednesday indicated to him that the proposal was being put “on the back burner.”

“It was a surprise to me when I saw this,” Narang said.

When Pruitt officially unveiled the new restrictions in April, the idea was met with scorn from many environmentalists, scientists and Democrats. Limiting the use of studies to only those with publicly available data would prevent policymakers from considering much of the medical research that over decades has established the deadly effects of air pollution from coal plants and cars. That research involves confidential information such as the medical histories of individuals or proprietary information of companies.

“It’s great that they’ve slowed down the steamroller a bit, and I think the EPA was a bit surprised by the vehemence of the opposition from scientists,” said Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Union of Concerned Scientists‎’ Center for Science and Democracy.

“But EPA shouldn’t just go back to the drawing board,” he added, “they should move on to other pastures.”

The agency received more than 597,000 written comments about the proposal and held a public hearing about it in July, a little more than a week after Pruitt’s departure. The EPA is still sorting through the flood of feedback.

President Trump’s allies are confident Wheeler will follow through on the plan Pruitt started—  to curb the use of what they have dubbed “secret science.”

“We have been in touch with the Administration on this issue and we’ve been assured that scientific transparency and accountability continues to be a top EPA priority,” Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) said in a statement. For years, Smith, chairman of the House Science Committee, has sought without success to achieve similar restrictions through legislation.

Diane Katz, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that supports the science proposal, agreed that “it is not unusual for it to take a year or two” for an agency to promulgate a high-stakes rule.

In the meantime, the agency is still run by Trump appointees.  “EPA can still practice scientific transparency in the absence of the rule,” Katz said.

POWER PLAYS

— California vs. Trump: The president took a swing at the wildfire weary state in remarks during a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, seemingly signaling that the administration would withhold funds if the state didn’t “get their act together.” He added, “California’s a mess. We’re giving billions and billions of dollars for forest fires in California,” the president said after Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue discussed fire prevention efforts.

Trump echoed an argument made by other Republicans that government agencies cautious about thinning out trees that can feed wildfires. “Old trees are sitting there, rotting and drying,” Trump said. “And instead of cleaning it up, they don’t touch them, they leave them. And we end up with these massive fires that we’re paying hundreds of billions of dollars for to fix, and the destruction is incredible.” Environmental groups contendproposed legislation granting agencies more leeway is a pretext for giving loggers easier access to public forests.

— Greenhouse gas emissions are actually down under Trump: Emissions of the gases that contribute to climate change decreased during the first year of the Trump administration, the EPA said Wednesday. The EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program reported a 2.7 percent decline in emissions from 2016 to 2017 and a 4.5 percent decline of emissions from larger power plants also since 2016. EPA head Wheeler attributed the reduction to “technological breakthroughs in the private sector, not the heavy hand of government.” But the numbers could be interpreted in a different way — as a lack of success so far by the Trump administration to revive the coal power sector in the face of cheaper and less carbon-intensive forms of generation like natural gas and renewables.