EPA asked to justify proposal to limit power of its science advisers

 EPA asked to justify proposal to limit power of its science advisers
© Getty Images

An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposal to limit what information is provided to its independent Science Advisory Board (SAB) is raising alarm bells with lawmakers, spurring a large information request from the House Science Committee.

A December memo from EPA staff to the board, first reported by E&E News that month, proposes centralizing power in the board’s chair, cutting SAB’s other roughly 40 members from weighing in on what EPA policies the board should review. 

Science Chairwoman Eddie Bernice JohnsonEddie Bernice JohnsonHouse members race to prepare for first-ever remote votes Minority lawmakers gain unprecedented clout amid pandemic Americans must have confidence federal agencies are using the best available science to confront coronavirus MORE (D-Texas) says it now appears that measure may have been retaliatory, as shortly after that the SAB released draft reports questioning the scientific underpinnings of four major deregulatory efforts from the agency. 

ADVERTISEMENT

“I am particularly troubled by the timing of this draft memorandum as it appears to be a retaliatory reaction to recent draft SAB reports that are critical of several proposed rulemakings being promulgated by the Agency,” Johnson wrote in the letter. 

“I have serious questions not just about what practical effects the draft memorandum would have on the SAB’s utility to EPA and the general public, but also about its legality,” she wrote.

The SAB, traditionally a team of the nation's top scientists, is asked to weigh in on the EPA’s largest proposals.

It has also been a repeated target of changes under the Trump administration, first under former EPA Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOVERNIGHT ENERGY: EPA declines to tighten smog standards amid pressure from green groups | Democrats split on Trump plan to use development funds for nuclear projects| Russian mining giant reports another fuel spill in Arctic EPA declines to tighten smog standards amid pressure from green groups Trump flails as audience dwindles and ratings plummet MORE, who barred people from sitting on the board if they received any EPA grant funding, calling it a conflict of interest. The move blocked a number of academics from sitting on the board, skewing its composition to include more industry-affiliated scientists. 

Johnson said EPA’s efforts to limit decisions over what the SAB reviews to the chair are not legal.

The law requires EPA to give needed decision making documents “to ‘the board’ rather than any individual designated by EPA, and authorizes ‘the board’ rather than any single member to review them,” Johnson wrote in her letter.

ADVERTISEMENT

In a January interview, SAB Chairman Michael Honeycutt told The Hill the changes from EPA put him in a difficult position. 

“No one person has all the expertise necessary to make that decision because EPA just deals in so many areas of science. No one person can know all that information,” Honeycutt said.

He went back to EPA and pushed back against leaving decisions about what to review to just the chairman, suggesting instead those choices be made by an eight-to-10 member interdisciplinary group. 

The memo from EPA also states that other SAB members could still submit comments on any proposed rule not selected for review by the chairman, but those comments would be private, allowing the agency to skirt the kind of public criticism from members that was just seen in December.

At the SAB’s January meeting, Honeycutt told other members of the board that the agency was pushing for a faster review of its policies, asking SAB to be more timely and efficient in returning its feedback, an area Honeycutt said could have room for improvement.

Johnson’s letter says the law requires EPA to provide the SAB with any materials it needs to review a policy.

“The SAB is free and independent to initiate any reviews it sees appropriate and necessary according to its own preferred timeline and scope,” she wrote.

Johnson asked EPA to justify the proposal and provide a full legal analysis to back its requests by March 3.

The EPA emphasized that it was a draft proposal that was circulated with SAB members.

"The letter from House Science is based on a draft proposal that was circulated with SAB members in late November 2019. The purpose of the draft was to garner comment and input from the SAB on a new process for engaging the SAB on proposed rulemakings that is timely, consistent, and considers the work and expertise of the EPA’s other advisory committees," and EPA spokesperson said.

"The Administrator values the input of the SAB, hence circulation of a draft memo to seek comment before implementing a new process."