The Environmental Protection Agency has a Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) that has the ability to review the agency’s actions and provide feedback as to whether they are based on a solid scientific and technical foundation. Early in the Trump administration, many scientists appointed to the board during the Obama administration were not reappointed, and many were replaced by scientists and engineers who worked on industry. This raised fears that the SAB would quietly go along with the current government’s focus on pro-industrial deregulation.
Those concerns seem misplaced. In preparation for a public board meeting scheduled for later this month, the SAB has released draft assessments of some of the EPA-signing policies under Trump, including new vehicle-mileage standards and a scientific disclosure rule. And the results are devastating. Policy decisions are described as uselessly vague, with a minimal scientific basis and with nonsensical results.
Policy minus science
The Trump administration came to power with a promise to abolish government regulations wherever possible. This initiative included a campaign to block greenhouse gas emissions limits, including lowering fuel efficiency standards for vehicles. But there have been less notable changes, such as limiting planned standards for mercury emissions and water pollution. And an effort has been made to limit how much science is included in future EPA decisions.
The SAB addresses all of these in its draft comments, and in almost every case finds the science used by the EPA questionable or completely lacking.
An attempt to roll back planned controls on mercury emissions from power plants is the simplest example. “EPA’s remaining risk assessment appears to include only: [mercury in] fish consumed from small to medium-sized lakes by fishermen and their families,” which the SAB believes represents a small fraction of the fish consumed in the U.S. On other aspects of mercury exposure, the SAB found that the Food and Drug Administration had obtained more recent data and performed up-to-date analyzes but these were not included in the EPA’s analysis.The report also found that previous suggestions from the SAB had been ignored in the final EPA analysis.
That may sound bad, but it gets worse. The Clean Water Act empowers the EPA to regulate pollution in US waterways and requires it to use the best available science to set the rules. During the Obama administration, following this dictate, the EPA recognized that the waterways it regulates are part of a system that includes groundwater, seasonal flows and man-made bodies of water. It planned rules that would limit the pollution allowed into the regulated waterways through these routes, significantly expanding the entities subject to the regulation.
The Trump administration is trying to repeal this proposed rule and the SAB is unimpressed. “The SRB discussed the scientific and technical justification for the proposed [Waters of the US] rule and concluded that aspects of the proposed rule conflict with the established science, the existing [Waters of the US] rule developed based on the established science and the goals of the Clean Water Act,” the draft document says. the Trump administration. “The proposed Rule does not provide a comparable body of peer-reviewed evidence to support such a divergence, and no scientific justification for abandoning the broader view of water connectivity accepted by current hydrological science,” the SAB concludes.
To give a specific example, the SAB says irrigation canals are a major source of water pollution and have been the source of: E coli outbreaks spread through vegetables.
The draft letter indicates that the SAB offered to put the rule on a firmer scientific footing, but the EPA declined, deciding instead to focus on legal decisions that could be interpreted as calling for a more narrow legal scope for regulation. . The SAB notes that this justification appears to be changing with the politics of the current administration and not in line with the requirement to use the best science.
Math Problems and Defining Science
The SAB then addresses proposed plans to lower future fuel efficiency standards for automobiles. These were based on new car ownership models that were incorporated into an existing analysis package. And some of those were not based on reality. The report notes that these models have “weaknesses” in their theoretical underpinnings and factual economic analysis, leading to the nonsensical result that lowering efficiency standards will make for cheaper vehicles, somehow the car market shrink† The EPA says this will lessen the impact of the reduced efficiency.
Finally, the board discusses the EPA’s recent decision to change what scientific results it considers when developing new rules. The Trump administration claims to be interested in increasing the openness of the science used in regulatory development by ensuring the research is publicly available. That is theoretically a good thing, and the SAB applauds the sentiment. But the actual implementation has encountered problems, namely that many of the studies involve confidential medical information that should not be made public.
But the board says the problems are much broader than that. The plan calls for “raw data” to be made available to the public, but it doesn’t define the term. This vagueness is everywhere. “The lack of criteria for what could meet the requirement makes it difficult to understand the implications,” the board argues regarding the lack of definition in the proposal of what research should be made available. The rule suggests that there may be exceptions to the requirement, but doesn’t say what they are.
It also does not explain how public access will be paid for. Archiving data incurs an ongoing cost, and the EPA has not made it clear who would pay for them.
EPA policy faces a confused set of requirements. Policies must be produced through the formal federal regulatory process and consistent with the legal capabilities Congress has assigned to the EPA, often refined through court decisions. They must address issues delegated to the EPA, such as clean air and water. In many cases, the laws that have delegated these powers to the EPA specify that the regulatory process must include scientific and economic analysis. Finally, as far as all that will allow, policies must be consistent with the political objectives of the current government.
It is the job of the SAB to highlight when one of those factors – the best available science – is not properly considered. That doesn’t mean that when you consider that it will change a policy, given all those other factors. But the issues raised by the SAB suggest it’s not being considered at all, making some of Trump’s policies hard to defend in court.
And it gives a solid indication that the SAB remains committed to identifying the best science available, even if that may not be popular with the EPA as a whole.