Environmental Protection Agency director Scott Pruitt proposed a new rule Tuesday that he insisted would enhance “transparency,” but which critics described as a thinly veiled attack on the use of science and scientific studies to craft regulations aimed at protecting the environment.
Under the rule, the EPA could consider only studies for which the underlying data are made public. Although that may sound like something that would enhance the scientific basis of the agency’s work, in fact the new rule — long on the wish list of conservatives — would reward the very industries the agency is supposed to regulate. For instance, it would make it harder for EPA to use studies based on the health effects of pollutants to limit the damage they cause.
Notably, Pruitt is doing by fiat what Congress has steadfastly refused to do: adopt the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who believes human-caused climate change to be a myth and who has, as chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, routinely defied science to help the fossil-fuel industry. Iterations of Smith’s bill were backed by groups such as Koch Industries, Exxon-Mobil and the American Chemistry Council, according to the New York Times.
Scientists who routinely conduct studies and comment on proposed regulations say there is nothing wrong with the system the agency currently uses.
Pruitt said cynically on Tuesday: “The American people ought to be able to have confidence, assurance that the findings, the record that we build … can be analyzed by those that are offering comments to us in rule making.” But that’s a pretext; it has long been clear that Pruitt’s top priority in his job is to weaken the agency’s ability to regulate industry.
Scientists who routinely conduct studies and comment on proposed regulations say there is nothing wrong with the system the agency currently uses. Many studies about the health impacts of pollutants are based on the private medical records of individuals. But under this proposed rule, any study that promised those individuals confidentiality could not be used. “These are phony issues that weaponize ‘transparency’ to facilitate political interference in science-based decision-making, rather than genuinely address either,” nearly 1,000 scientists said in a letter opposing the rule. “The result will be policies and practices that will ignore significant risks to the health of every American.”
Scientists who submit studies for peer review or for publication in a scientific journal don’t generally have to turn over such confidential data.
Pruitt’s move follows his directive last year that scientists who receive grants from the EPA can no longer serve on the agency’s scientific advisory boards because, he argued, they have a conflict of interest. The result: Industry representatives and industry-friendly state officials have replaced academics in helping the agency frame policy. Pruitt has also ordered a rollback of higher emissions standards for motor vehicles, consolidated in his office decision-making on which waterways fall under the Clean Water Act and targeted for repeal more than 20 other regulations. Fortunately, several state attorneys general and nonprofit environmental watchdog groups have formed something of a legal firewall with court challenges over Pruitt’s dangerous actions. But suing isn’t the same as winning, and more reasonable voices in Washington must stand up to Pruitt and to the threat he poses to clean air and water, and to the health of the nation.
Pruitt has to go. His ethical lapses are legion. He allegedly took a sweetheart deal last year for cheap living space in a Washington townhouse co-owned by the wife of an oil lobbyist. He has squandered taxpayers’ money on a soundproof phone room in his office, on exorbitant trips, and in using a round-the-clock security detail even when on personal business. The EPA say he needs the security (which has already cost nearly $3 million) because of threats; a Buzzfeed reporter, however, says the agency told him that it could find no records of threats.
But the real problem with Pruitt is his unrelenting efforts to undermine the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and other protections that have reduced pollution and saved millions of American lives without undermining the U.S. economy. Making a profit and having a clean, safe environment are not mutually exclusive.