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How the House science committee may try to weaken the EPA

Members of a House of Representatives committee hammered the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday at a hearing titled “Making EPA Great Again,” accusing it of basing its regulations on biased, politicized science, and calling for reforms in the EPA’s rule-making process. But a number of scientific organizations call this an attempt to covertly strip the agency’s power—and ultimately to interfere with the scientific process itself.

In his opening statement at the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology hearing, Chair Lamar Smith—a Republican from Texas—excoriated the EPA over what he has called its “secret science.”

In setting past environmental regulations the EPA has “routinely relied on questionable science, based on nonpublic information, that could not be reproduced…and deliberately used its regulatory power to undercut American industries and advance a misguided political agenda that has minimal environmental benefit,” Smith said. With Pres. Donald Trump’s administration newly in charge, Smith added that he now sees a chance to rein in an agency he thinks has run amok. “There is now an opportunity to right the ship at the EPA, and steer the agency in the right direction,” he said.

Many believe that means Smith plans to revive legislation called the Secret Science Reform Act, which he co-sponsored in 2014 and introduced again in 2015—but which Pres. Barack Obama vowed to veto. The bill would prohibit the EPA from creating regulations based on science that is “not transparent or reproducible.” Scientific organizations say this would make it more difficult for the EPA to create rules at all, and craft them based on the best available science.

For example, if the bill requires the EPA only use studies that can be identically reproduced, that would impose an unreasonable demand on scientists, according to Rush Holt, who testified at the hearing as CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“Many studies cannot be repeated in exactly the same way—the populations have changed, those people [in the studies] have grown up or moved away or the forest you’re studying has been overtaken by an invasive [species],” Holt explained. “The Secret Science Act has been based on a misunderstanding of how science works—the gold standard is to find other approaches to come up with the same conclusions. Rarely can you repeat an experiment in exactly the same way.”

Critics also worry the legislation could keep the EPA from using important multiyear studies—say, for example, a 10-year study examining air pollution’s effect on human health—in the agency’s rule-making process. Those critical long-term studies are extremely difficult to replicate because they require so much time and money. Because of this, they may not fall under the definition of “reproducible.” Although the bill’s supporters might argue long-term studies would not be excluded, the law’s language would likely leave the term “reproducibility” open to interpretation. For instance, someone could potentially sue the EPA for using one of those long-term studies in its rule-making, leaving it to the courts to determine the definition of “reproducibility.”

All of this means the bill could limit the number of studies the EPA might consider, if either the courts decide a study is not “reproducible” or if the EPA refrains from using a multiyear study because it believes the research will not meet the bill’s “reproducibility” demand. In other words, the agency may not be able use the best available science to make its rules. “I think [the Secret Science bill] is fundamentally substituting a politically originated revision of the process for the scientific process,” Holt said in the hearing.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency in Washington DC. Photo by Loop Images/UIG via Getty Images

The United States Environmental Protection Agency in Washington DC. Photo by Loop Images/UIG via Getty Images

The Secret Science Reform Act would also require the EPA use only studies for which data is publicly available online—or the agency makes publicly available—in the name of transparency. But critics of this approach note that scientific studies often include private data, including individual health information, or industry records that cannot be made public for competitive, ethical or legal reasons. During the hearing the representative from the American Chemistry Council (ACC), an industry group, asked that confidential commercial data be protected in the bill. “That was another great illustration that the bill is not about transparency—it’s about what is politically expedient to move industry’s agenda forward,” says Yogin Kothari, a representative with the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

As for medical data, supporters of the bill say names and other private information could be scrubbed—but that would likely be expensive and time-intensive, and thus another factor limiting the number of studies the EPA could use to make its environmental protection rules. “You don’t need access to the raw data to figure out what information the EPA is relying on,” Kothari wrote in an e-mail. “The idea of secret science is based on a false premise.”

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that implementing the latest version of the Secret Science bill (the 2015 version) would cost the EPA $250 million annually over the next few years. The bill, however, allots the EPA only $1 million per fiscal year to carry out its new requirements. “The goal [of the bill] is really to throw a wrench in the rule-making process at the agency,” Kothari says. Smith’s office referred queries to the House Science Committee, whose spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.

Industry groups including the ACC have supported the latest version of the bill. “A more transparent EPA helps to foster the kind of regulatory environment that gives our members the confidence and certainty they need to continue to invest in the U.S. economy and develop transformational, innovative products,” an ACC spokesperson wrote to Scientific American in an e-mail after the hearing. Other industry groups that supported the latest version of the bill declined to commment.

The House panel also focused on reforming the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, which some committee members and industry groups say does not represent a balanced view of science. In 2015 Smith co-sponsored a billcalled the “EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act,” which never became law—it is widely believed Smith will revive that legislation this year, along with the Secret Science bill. Opponents say the Advisory Board act would make it possible to stack the board with members who favor industry. “[The board] will not function better by having fewer scientists on it,” Holt said at the hearing.

Committee members also devoted a significant portion of the hearing to a recent controversial article about climate change research, recently published in the Daily Mail, a London tabloid newspaper. A whistleblower at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reportedly told the newspaper the agency violated scientific integrity and rushed to publish a landmark scientific paper, which showed no pause in global warming, for political reasons. Smith referenced the story in his opening statement at Tuesday’s hearing, saying, “Recent news stories report that NOAA tried to deceive the American people by falsifying data to justify a partisan agenda.”

The whistleblower, John Bates, told another publication on Tuesday, however, that the agency had broken protocol when it rushed to publication—but that the data had not been manipulated. The points Bates complained about made no difference in the scientific paper’s overall conclusions, according to Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist and an energy systems analyst at the University of California, Berkeley. Hausfather noted other studies, including one of his own, have independently verified the NOAA paper’s results. “I would strongly recommend,” he adds, “that if Congress wants to assess matters of science, they should rely on peer-reviewed publications rather than tabloid articles.”

This article is reproduced with permission from Scientific American. It was first published on Feb. 8, 2017. Find the original story here.

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