Overnight Energy: Scientists flee USDA as research agencies move to Kansas City area | Watchdog finds EPA skirted rules to put industry reps on boards | New rule to limit ability to appeal pollution permits

Overnight Energy: Scientists flee USDA as research agencies move to Kansas City area | Watchdog finds EPA skirted rules to put industry reps on boards | New rule to limit ability to appeal pollution permits

KANSAS CITY OR UNEMPLOYMENT? A Trump administration decision to move researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to the Kansas City area is threatening to spark the flight of more than half of the staff selected to move, gutting the agency of its top scientific voices. 

Staff have until midnight Monday to decide whether to uproot and join the department as it moves its research branches from Washington, D.C., lured by $26 million in promised incentives from state and local officials.

Critics see the move, set to be completed by Sept. 30, as yet another example of the Trump administration looking to sideline scientists and researchers, keeping them away from the corridors of power. Administration officials deny that, calling it a cost-saving move intended to have researchers closer to farmers.

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The decision comes as other agencies are also planning to relocate parts of their teams amid suspicions about the move. For example, the Interior Department is expected to announce Tuesday a new headquarters for the Bureau of Land Management.

Why scientists are worried: "Moving these researchers out of Washington puts them out of earshot from policymakers. A lot of the research that scientists and economists do at [USDA] has policy implications and members of Congress need this information and need to have face-to-face meetings with these researchers," Rebecca Boehm, with the Union of Concerned Scientists, told The Hill.

"It keeps science out of the policymaking process. And we've seen many times that this administration doesn't like facts or research that isn't convenient or [is] an impediment to their agenda, so I think moving them away helps accomplish that," she added. 

Who is going to be affected: The move affects two wings of the USDA. Economic Research Service (ERS) employees analyze the agricultural market, but their research is much broader, including looking at food stamps, rural poverty and conservation.

National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) employees work with universities to fund research and coordinate the process that issues research grants on agriculture-related subjects, including climate change adaptation. 

The two agencies voted to unionize in response to the move, as Democrats in both chambers and a number of groups that regularly work with the two agencies lobby to keep them in Washington.

Estimates tallied by employees show 70 percent of ERS employees designated for the Kansas City office will not be moving. For NIFA, 45 percent of those surveyed say they will not move. Overall, the move was expected to impact 547 staff between the two agencies.

But the numbers of staff refusing to move may grow: Some employees said staff at both agencies are trying not to tip their hand, saying they will move only if they do not find another job in the D.C. area.  

So far, just 27 ERS staff out of 250 have committed to moving to Kansas City, according to the employee tallies.

What about the money? The UDSA argues the move will save $300 million over 15 years, but critics have said their cost-benefit analysis was shoddy and did not follow guidelines.

A different cost-benefit analysis from the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association found the move would cost taxpayers between $83 million and $182 million.

Read more about opposition to the move here

 

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GAO-NO! The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) increased the number of industry representatives and consultants on its top scientific board and failed to ensure all those appointees met ethics requirements, a government watchdog found.

A report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found the EPA did not follow the process for selecting the "best qualified and most appropriate candidates" for two important committees that advise on environmental regulations and also "did not ensure that all appointees met ethics requirements."

The EPA's Science Advisory Board (SAB), a team of more than 40 of the nation's top scientists, is designed to guide the agency on its scientific processes. 

Critics say it has been repeatedly targeted by the Trump administration. Many academics were removed by guidelines from former Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittEnvironmentalists renew bid to overturn EPA policy barring scientists from advisory panels Six states sue EPA over pesticide tied to brain damage Overnight Energy: Trump EPA looks to change air pollution permit process | GOP senators propose easing Obama water rule | Green group sues EPA over lead dust rules MORE that barred those who receive EPA research grants from serving on the committee. There was no similar ban for scientists who receive industry funding.

Lawmakers react: "The GAO's findings are yet another example Donald Trump handing the keys to Americans' government to big industries that government is supposed to police," Sens. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseSenate Democrats push Trump to permanently shutter migrant detention facility To cash in on innovation, remove market barriers for advanced energy technologies Democrats give cold shoulder to Warren wealth tax MORE (D-R.I.) and Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperAmerica is in desperate need of infrastructure investment: Senate highway bill a step in the right direction FARA should apply to Confucius Institutes The 23 Republicans who opposed Trump-backed budget deal MORE (D-Del.) said in a statement.

"After a careful investigation, the non-partisan GAO confirms what we've been critical of all along: The Trump Administration is violating its own rules by putting industry officials in charge of crucially important science advisory boards," the statement said.

The GAO report said there were "notable changes" to some committees, including an initial drop in the number of academics serving on the SAB.

It also highlighted numerous issues with following ethics guidelines.

EPA's response: The EPA pushed back again the report.

"EPA has already provided GAO its thorough explanation on their conclusion that the Agency did not follow its own policy – the assertion is incorrect and should be removed from the report," Michael Abboud, an EPA spokesman, said in a statement to The Hill.

Read more here.

 

NO APPEAL FOR POLLUTION PERMITS: Changing Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations could soon strip individuals and communities of the ability to challenge granted pollution permits while continuing to allow industry to appeal denials, The New York Times reported.

The rule the EPA is preparing to weaken would no longer allow community voices across the country to challenge decisions on how much pollution is legally allowed to be released at nearby power plants, according to the report.

Three people familiar with the draft plan, which has not yet been released, told the Times that industry stakeholders would still be allowed to appeal the EPA's decisions to the Environmental Appeals Board.

The EPA did not confirm or deny the existence of the forthcoming rulemaking.

"EPA is always interested in improving its processes while maintaining environmental protection. Contrary to the speculation by certain parties, EPA is working to protect the public interest and transparently carry out its work," an EPA spokesman said in a statement.

News of the rule change, first announced by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility on Friday, came the same week President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump pushes back on recent polling data, says internal numbers are 'strongest we've had so far' Illinois state lawmaker apologizes for photos depicting mock assassination of Trump Scaramucci assembling team of former Cabinet members to speak out against Trump MORE held his environmental leadership speech at the White House. Trump preached the role his administration has played in bringing top-notch water and air protections to the U.S.

"What E.P.A. is proposing means communities and families no longer have the right to appeal a pollution permit that might affect them," Patrice Simms, a former staff lawyer for the Environmental Appeals Board, told the Times. 

Read more here.

 

ON TAP TOMORROW:

In the House, the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis will hold a hearing on heavy duty vehicles, the Science, Space and Technology Committee will hold a hearing on scientific decisions at the EPA, and the Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on how oil and gas development impacts the climate. 

In the Senate, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee will consider a number of bills, including one on carbon capture. 

 

OUTSIDE THE BELTWAY:

-Police, protesters gird for telescope conflict on sacred ground, the Honolulu Star Advertiser reports. 

-New Mexico accuses EPA of breaking Wheeler's PFAS cleanup pledge, E&E News reports.

 

ICYMI:

Stories from Monday and over the weekend...

-Scientists flee USDA as research agencies move to Kansas City area

-Watchdog finds EPA skirted rules when appointing industry leaders to science boards

-Communities no longer able to appeal pollution permits under forthcoming EPA rule: report

-Congress mobilizes on cyber threats to electric grid