The US Environmental Protection Agency's scientific advice on coal, lead, and climate change might soon come largely from polluting industries and rely on far fewer environmental studies by scientists.
On Thursday, the House science committee passed two bills to Congress with those aims, according to critics. One bill would change EPA's scientific advisory panel to bar academic scientists who had received study grants from the environmental agency. The other would allow critics to see previously proprietary data in studies weighed by the agency in deciding pollution rules.
"These bills just look like ways to inject more doubt into that scientific assessment and gum things up," administrative law expert Sidney Shapiro of Wake Forest University told BuzzFeed News.
Republicans have complained for years about excessive EPA regulation, particularly with regard to limiting climate change. With both the House and Senate, as well as the White House, in Republican control, the bills take on added importance this year.
"The EPA should show Americans the data they claim justifies their regulation," said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, chairman of the committee, introducing the bills.
The votes on the two bills split along partisan lines, with Republicans voting 17–12 in favor of the open data bill, and 19–14 in favor of the advisory board makeover. They now face votes in the full US House of Representatives, and would need to pass in the US Senate before going to the White House desk of President Trump for signature into law.
The EPA's Science Advisory Board has been a focus of Republican complaints in past years, particularly because it criticized the agency's limited view of the water safety implications of fracking, and endorsed the agency's finding that climate change is a threat to human health.
"We need to restore scientific integrity and independence to the board," Rep. Frank Lucas, a Republican from Oklahoma who sponsored the advisory board overhaul bill, said at the hearing. Lucas and other Republicans criticize the board's committee as lacking membership from industry, and say Obama administration EPA chiefs have installed experts who agree with pro-regulation views.
Science committee Democrats such as Rep. Don Beyer of Virginia criticized the bills as an attempt to stack advisory panels with industry supporters beholden to polluters, and to open up studies finding health threats from pollution to endless argument and delay. The advisory panel bill prohibiting experts who have received EPA grants from serving, while opening the door to industry experts employed by regulated firms, "tilts the scales upside down on conflict of interest," Beyer said.
Academic researchers are essentially dependent on federal grants for their careers, he and other critics of the bills noted, so barring SAB members from receiving them was essentially a way to kick people who didn't work for industry off the panel.
And the effort to open data originates in attempts by a "tobacco industry consultant" to learn the names of participants in American Cancer Society studies of smoking safety, said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, the chief Democrat on the science committee. Industries and researchers won't trust data confidentiality agreements made by EPA as called for by the bill, she said, based on that history. That means they won't submit research to the agency for evaluation, "limiting the ability of the EPA to use the best science."
Overall, the bills rely on a mistaken notion of how science works when applied to federal regulation, said Shapiro. "There is this idea that there is the 'best science available' out there and it will somehow answer every question," he said. "But the reality is that agencies rely on the weight of evidence from lots of studies, all weighed by experts, and none of them are prefect."