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In Trump’s EPA, industry has more voice in shaping science

May 24, 2017 at 6:15 PM EDT
As a candidate, Donald Trump vowed to dismantle the EPA in “almost any form.” And the budget the White House unveiled Tuesday cuts EPA funding by a third. But what’s less known are recent moves that would give the industry more of a voice when it comes to reshaping its approach to scientific recommendations. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss the changes.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: big changes at the EPA in the Trump administration.

As a candidate, the president vowed to get rid of it in — quote — “almost any form.” The budget he unveiled yesterday would reduce its budget by a third, more than any other federal agency.

What is less known is a series of recent moves that would give industry more of a voice when it comes to shaping its approach to scientific recommendations.

That’s the focus of our Leading Edge segment tonight.

Jeffrey Brown looks at what’s afoot.

JEFFREY BROWN: It all has to do the way the EPA and the government evaluate science underlying many regulations. Earlier this month, the EPA and the Interior Department announced they would review and overhaul who serves on key scientific advisory boards.

The EPA move attracted particular notice, since its administrator, Scott Pruitt, decided not to renew the contracts for half the members of the so-called Board of Scientific Counselors.

Our scientific correspondent, Miles O’Brien, is here now to help fill in the picture.

So, Miles, the Board of Scientific Counselors, what is that? What do they do?

MILES O’BRIEN: Jeff, a formerly obscure board at the EPA made up of 18 scientists, most of them academics, a few of them from industry, their goal is to get really deep in the weeds with EPA staff researchers and give them some sound advice on research priorities and equipment and techniques that allow them to do their work.

They do not get involved in policy, however.

JEFFREY BROWN: What exactly happened last week?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, nine of them whose term had come up, their first term came up, were told they were not being automatically renewed, which has been the practice in the past.

It is an unusual move. They were told they could reapply for their jobs, but it is something that has taken that board aback, for sure. I spoke with the chairperson of the Board of Scientific Counselors, Deborah Swackhamer. She’s a professor emerita at the University of Minnesota.

She was quite shocked.

DEBORAH SWACKHAMER, Chair, Board of Scientific Counselors: It is highly unusual for someone to not be reappointed. This is not a political board in any way, shape or form, and we don’t advocate for any kind of regulation or lack of regulation. We’re not political.

So to say that we are somehow — we would behave differently because we were appointed under President Obama is — actually, it’s a little insulting. We are scientists. We are not going to be swayed by who’s president or who is administrator.

I have served under three presidents and four administrators of EPA in my time on various boards, and it never has influenced how I think about the science that I’m reviewing.

MILES O’BRIEN: So, the board stands by its autonomy and its objectivity, and yet this happens, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so what was the reason — the reasoning given by the Trump administration?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, a spokesperson for the EPA says this: “We should have people who understand the impact of regulations on the regulating community.”

The administrator of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, last month was in Pennsylvania talking to some coal miners, and he was talking about the broader issue of industry input on EPA regulations.

Listen to this.

SCOTT PRUITT, Administrator, Environmental Protection Agency: As we spend time with the industry across this country recognizing that we have such opportunity with respect to energy independence, that just by spending time, some on those on the environmental left think that we’re somehow compromising outcomes with respect to our environment.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, Miles, a new administration, as you say, often get to appoint a lot of their own new people. What kind of responses were you hearing about this action?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, it’s a definite shift. And there is something at work here that’s been going on for quite some time.

I spoke to a former assistant administrator for the EPA during the George W. Bush administration, Jeffrey Holmstead. He’s now an attorney in private practice. And it is his contention — and this is widely held in conservative circles — that simply stating a conflict of interests is enough to eliminate it.

This is what he has to say.

JEFFREY HOLMSTEAD, Former Assistant Administrator, EPA: See, I don’t understand why there’s a conflict. As long as they are disclosed, the fact that someone has done some consulting work for industry shouldn’t disqualify them from offering their scientific views on things. And those — anyone who’s engaged in that debate can take those views into account.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, of course, on the other hand, many in the science committee fear a broader move towards greater influence for the industry, those who are being regulated.

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes. The concern here, Jeff, is that if you stack these boards with people who are industry researchers, who are weighing in on subject matters that affect the corporations that pay their salaries, that that is going to put the thumb on the scale or in some way block regulation that would be scientifically justified.

It’s a reasonable concern, and we’re kind of in the middle of this debate between traditional academics and industry researchers to try to sort this out.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what is to come? What is next?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, this is what’s interesting.

There are 21 separate boards of all manner that are advising the Environmental Protection Agency. The granddaddy of them all is the Scientific Advisory Board. Changing its constituency requires a vote of Congress.

And so far, the House has done just that. In March, it passed legislation which would allow the EPA to change the rules to allow more industry input on that Scientific Advisory Board. Couple that with the so-called secret science legislation which makes it very difficult for researchers on these boards to use certain types of data related to human studies in weighing their decisions, and scientists are very concerned that there are other shoes that are going to drop here.

Let’s listen to Deborah Swackhamer one more time.

DEBORAH SWACKHAMER: It almost feels like this is the first of a wave of potential actions that are going to further marginalize science advice, and, therefore, marginalize the science being done at EPA, marginalize the science being done in other government agencies, and then ultimately just there is going to be this very slow-motion, snowball effect.

MILES O’BRIEN: And just to add to the optics here, the EPA has taken down its Web site on climate change. The spokesperson is telling us they’re changing it to reflect the priorities of the new administration and the new administrator, Mr. Pruitt.

Now, Mr. Pruitt, you will recall, when he was the attorney general of Oklahoma, he sued the EPA more than a dozen times and more recently, as the newly appointed EPA administrator, said, carbon dioxide is not even a greenhouse gas.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Miles O’Brien, thanks, as always.

MILES O’BRIEN: You’re welcome, Jeff.

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