Energy & Environment

EPA delays advisers’ review of ‘secret science’ rules

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has repeatedly rescheduled and delayed a meeting of an advisory board slated to review a controversial proposal that would block the agency from considering studies that don’t make their underlying data public. 

The rule in question is titled “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science,” but it is known as the secret science rule.

{mosads}Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and other Republicans have railed against “secret science” that they say is used to support regulations even when the data underlying the science is not released. Critics of the rule say scientists sometimes do not have the legal right to make their data public, and that the new rule could endanger public safety by putting up barriers to the use of valid scientific evidence.

The EPA has sought to schedule a three-day teleconference of its Science Advisory Board (SAB) between September and November, according to emails obtained by The Hill. The board was most recently scheduled to meet in early November before the meeting was canceled at the behest of EPA head Andrew Wheeler, with no new scheduled date.

“The SAB teleconference call tentatively scheduled for November 4‐6, 2019 will be delayed,” Tom Brennan, director of the EPA’s SAB staff office, wrote to the committee members in an Oct. 23 email. “The Administrator has asked us to delay the meeting until all new SAB members have been formally onboarded. That process is under way now.”

Critics suspect the delays are a stall tactic allowing the agency to finalize the rule without the public hearing criticism leveled by its own internal board.

Former SAB staff director Chris Zarba said the excuse in the Oct. 23 email shouldn’t have been enough to not have the meeting.

“That’s no excuse. There’s always new people coming on board and there’s always people leaving,” he said. “There’s 44 members on the SAB. There’s no reason not to go forward and no reason to hold up a review for three members.” 

Zarba predicted that if SAB were to meet, it would likely find the secret science rule would diminish EPA’s ability to rely on sound science — the conclusion of groups that submitted negative comments on the proposal.

“This has got no support,” Zarba said. “Every independent science organization that commented on it was strongly opposed to it. This is going to be a major storm when it breaks.

“They know the answer they’re going to get [from the SAB] so they don’t want to wait. They want to implement it first,” he added. 

The SAB includes some of the nation’s top scientific minds and was created in 1978 to serve as a check on agency rules. Members are recruited to weigh in on the agency’s ideas and vet its scientific reasoning. Under federal advisory committee requirements, just 23 of the 44 SAB members are needed to participate on a call to achieve a quorum.

An EPA spokesperson said the delay of the SAB meeting was necessary to give the new board members time to get up to date. 

“Delaying the call until the three new members are hired as Special Government Employees (SGEs) allows the Board to regain the lost expertise and reestablish the balance desired by the Administrator,” Maggie Sauerhage of EPA’s Office of Public Affairs told The Hill.

“The teleconference will not be rescheduled until everyone is onboarded. We are in the process of determining when that might occur.”

SAB Chairman Michael Honeycutt said questions about why the meetings were delayed should be directed at the EPA staff that coordinate the board’s meetings. But he said the delayed meetings were slowing the board from collectively going over their review of the rule, which is nearly complete.

“The SAB has clearly expressed its desire to offer advice on the proposed [science and transparency] rule and are in the process of doing so,” he said in an email to The Hill. “The Board has a draft consensus report that we will discuss at a future meeting that we are working to schedule.”

The rule was just one of the proposals SAB was slated to review in the November meeting. The agenda was also to include a review of the agency’s tailpipe emissions rollback and rules governing U.S. waterways and mercury emissions.

Wheeler had earlier asked the SAB to review just one portion of the “secret science” proposal: how the EPA should deal with studies that contain personally identifiable information and confidential business information. But the SAB voted to buck the EPA, opting to also review the secret science rule in its entirety. 

At the SAB’s last teleconference on the rule in August, advisers heavily criticized the transparency rule. Some said it risked eliminating major studies from consideration in future EPA policymaking.

Critics say the delay raises doubts about whether the EPA will seriously consider SAB recommendations.

“We are concerned that by delaying these meetings on rules that are currently moving through the process, the EPA is forging ahead with harmful policies without having access to the scientific scrutiny they warrant,” said Genna Reed, lead science and policy analyst at the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“Without the opportunity to have a public teleconference to discuss these workgroup products with the full SAB, the products will remain drafts and not be vetted by full SAB to become consensus peer review documents that can be used to advise the agency.”

The EPA spokesperson said the agency would take into consideration any of the reports issued by SAB prior to the release of the rule.

“This final rule will consider the public comments received in response to the April 2018 proposed rule (comment period closed August 16, 2018), the public comments on the supplement rule (publication of the rule is expected in early 2020), the SAB consultation on confidential business information and personally identifying information issues (received on September 30, 2019) and any other commentary received from the SAB,” Sauerhage said. 

Wheeler told Congress in September that the agency anticipated releasing the rule “early next year.” The New York Times last week reported that a draft of the rule had been sent to the White House.

“I think this delay represents at least three fewer months the EPA has to meaningfully incorporate SAB’s full review into the process,” said Reed. 

“EPA’s rule was never about solving any actual scientific problem at the agency, so it’s not surprising that they are failing to seek science advice on the matter.”

Energy & Environment