Native American protesters help delay Arizona mining project
EPA blocks scientists who get grants from its advisory boards
The Trump administration rolled out a new policy Tuesday that states scientists receiving Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grants cannot serve on the agency's advisory boards, a move critics decried as part of a war on independent science.
The policy, rolled out at an EPA event by Administrator Scott Pruitt, bars hundreds of expert scientists working in environmental and health fields at universities from serving on the boards. Conversely, it would almost certainly increase the representation from companies and industry groups on the panels.
The policy change was quickly denounced by Democrats and environmental groups, who called it a poorly disguised attempt to push out experts at odds with industry.
But Republicans, who have long been seeking the same goals through other means, applauded the policy.
Pruitt presented the move as a way to reduce conflicts of interest. EPA grantees, he said, inevitably are conflicted because of the money they receive from the agency.
"Those advisory committees have given us the bedrock of science to ensure that we're making informed decisions," Pruitt said at the event.
"And when we have members of those committees that have received tens of millions of dollars in grants at the same time that they're advising this agency on rulemaking, that is not good and that's not right," he said.
EPA advisory committee members have gotten $77 million in EPA grants over the last three years, Pruitt said.
"We want to ensure that there's integrity in the process, and that the scientists who are advising us are doing so with not any type of appearance of conflict," he said. "And when you receive that much money ... there's a question that arises about independence."
Pruitt cited a Bible verse from the book of Joshua, in which Joshua led the people of Israel to the promised land but asked them to choose between worshipping God or their "false gods."
"Choose this day whom you will serve," Pruitt said, quoting Joshua.
"This is sort of like the Joshua principle," he said. "Either service on the committee to provide counsel to us in an independent fashion or choose the grant. But you can't do both."
Pruitt had teased the grantee policy earlier this month at a Heritage Foundation event.
The directive issued Tuesday also seeks more state, local and tribal government representation on the advisory boards, more geographic diversity and new candidates with "fresh perspectives" on the matters before the committees.
State, local and tribal government representatives also get an exemption to Pruitt's ban on grantees.
The committees at issue include the Science Advisory Board and the Clean Air Safety Advisory Committee.
Those panels do not have the power to issue regulations on their own. But they are often called upon by the administrator and others at the EPA for their expertise on regulatory and other matters.
Pruitt did not announce the membership of the boards at Tuesday's event with lawmakers and activists, saying instead that announcement would come in the next week.
Pruitt did, however, name the chairmen of each of the three most high-profile panels: Michael Honeycutt, head toxicologist at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, will chair the Science Advisory Board; Tony Cox, an independent consultant, will lead the Clean Air Safety Advisory Committee; and Paul Gilman, chief sustainability officer at waste-to-energy company Covanta Energy, will head the Board of Scientific Advisers.
Each man has extensive experience and education in their fields; each has also disagreed with the scientific basis of major Obama administration policies.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science, one of the nation's foremost scientific societies, slammed the policy rolled out Tuesday.
Rush Holt, the group's CEO, said it "denounces the EPA administrator's decision to disallow qualified scientific experts from providing evidence-based information as members of its science adviser boards."
"This EPA decision is motivated by politics, not the desire for quality scientific information," he said.
Democrats and environmentalists joined in.
"Scott Pruitt's latest move to reject qualified scientists to make room for industry-sponsored individuals isn't fooling anyone," said Sen. Tom Carper (Del.), the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
"Since he arrived at the agency, Mr. Pruitt has repeatedly worked to silence EPA scientists, deny the facts and discredit science inconvenient to his agenda; now he's trying to get rid of the scientists altogether," Carper said.
But Republicans, who are actively pushing legislation that would enforce similar standards, applauded the move.
It answers their years-long complaints that the Obama administration was creating an echo chamber and shutting out dissenting voices from panels.
"For too long, the agency's advisory committees were not representative of the whole country," said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the environment committee's chairman.
"Today's directive from Administrator Pruitt will ensure that the unique perspectives of Wyoming and other rural states are not left out of the conversation," he said.
Myron Ebell, head of the Competitive Enterprise Institute's energy and environment center, said his group "strongly supports EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's sensible and long overdue reforms of the agency's numerous advisory boards."
Ebell also led President Trump's transition team operation at the EPA.
"The fact that some of the EPA's advisory boards are filled with members whose research receives millions of dollars of funding from the EPA is an obvious conflict of interest that should never have been allowed to develop," he said.
Updated: 3:11 p.m.