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Scott Pruitt blocks scientists with EPA funding from serving as agency advisers

By Brady Dennis, Juliet Eilperin

October 31, 2017 at 4:24 PM

Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, no longer will allow scientists with EPA funding to serve on its scientific advisory boards. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency upended the agency's key advisory groups on Tuesday, announcing plans to jettison scientists who have received EPA grants.

The move sets in motion a fundamental shift, one that could change the scientific and technical advice that historically has guided the agency as it crafts environmental regulations. The decision to bar any researcher who receives EPA grant money from serving as an adviser appears to be unprecedented.

"It is very, very important to ensure independence, to ensure that we're getting advice and counsel independent of the EPA," Administrator Scott Pruitt told reporters Tuesday.

He estimated that the members of three different committees — the Scientific Advisory Board, the Clean Air Science Advisory Committee and the Board of Scientific Counselors — had collectively accepted $77 million in EPA grants over the last three years. He noted that researchers will have the option of ending their grant or continuing to advise EPA, "but they can't do both."

EPA will not impose a similar litmus test on scientific advisers who receive grants from outside sources. But Pruitt said they will undergo the same sort of ethics review that is already in place "to ensure that there aren't issues of potential conflict with areas that they're working upon."

The agency made an effort to enlist researchers from a wider range of states to broaden the panels' outlook, he said. Members will include experts from 40 states and the District of Columbia, he said, reflecting the addition of researchers from Alaska and several states in the middle of the country.

"We want to ensure geographical representation," he said. "We want to ensure the independence and integrity of the process through the decisions we're making."

Pruitt did not announce his selections for new appointees to the Science Advisory Board, but a list obtained by The Washington Post from multiple individuals familiar with the likely appointments includes several categories of experts — voices from regulated industries, academics and environmental regulators from conservative states, and researchers who have a history of critiquing the science and economics underpinning tighter environmental regulations. They would replace a number of scientists who currently have agency grants and whose terms are expiring.

Terry F. Yosie, who was the advisory board's director during the Reagan administration, said the changes "represent a major purge of independent scientists and a decision to sideline the SAB from major EPA decision-making in the future."

Environmental and scientific groups were quick to condemn the changes and question Pruitt's motives on Tuesday.

"Pruitt is turning the idea of 'conflict of interest' on its head — he claims federal research grants should exclude a scientist from an EPA advisory board but industry funding shouldn't," Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union for Concerned Scientists, said in a statement. "The consequences of these decisions aren't just bad for a few scientists. This could mean that there's no independent voice ensuring that EPA follows the science on everything from drinking water pollution to atmospheric chemical exposure."

But industry groups and conservative lawmakers, including longtime EPA critic Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), who attended the announcement, applauded the action.

"The changes announced today will help ensure EPA's scientific review panels are well balanced with perspectives from qualified scientists of diverse backgrounds and board members are free of any disqualifying conflicts of interest," American Chemistry Council president Cal Dooley said in a statement.

Pruitt had foreshadowed the sweeping changes in a speech this month at the Heritage Foundation that he planned to rid the agency's scientific advisory boards of researchers with EPA funding. He argued that the current structure raises questions about their independence, though he did not voice similar objections to industry-funded scientists.

"What's most important at the agency is to have scientific advisers that are objective, independent-minded, providing transparent recommendations," Pruitt said at the time. "If we have individuals who are on those boards, sometimes receiving money from the agency . . . that to me causes questions on the independence and the veracity and the transparency of those recommendations that are coming our way."

Among the expected appointees are sharp proponents of deregulation who have argued both in academic circles and while serving in government that federal regulators need to raise the bar before imposing new burdens on the private sector.

John D. Graham, who now serves as dean of Indiana University's School of Public and Environmental Affairs, launched a major deregulatory push while head of the Office of Management and Budget's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under George W. Bush. He repeatedly informed agencies that they had not sufficiently justified the rules they wanted to enact, establishing a process under the Data Quality Act that allowed petitioners to ask agencies to withdraw information that did not meet OMB standards for "quality, objectivity, utility and integrity."

Anne Smith, who serves as managing director of NERA Economic Consulting and co-heads its environmental practice, belongs to a firm that has done extensive work for groups that fought the Obama administration's regulatory agenda. In June, President Trump cited a report NERA produced for the American Council for Capital Formation and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce when announcing his decision to exit the international Paris climate agreement. The report projected that meeting America's commitment under the accord would mean "as much as 2.7 million lost jobs by 2025."

That study was based on several assumptions, including the idea that the United States would meet its emissions targets not by maximizing energy efficiency or other low-cost approaches but by forcing the industrial sector to cut emissions by 40 percent between 2005 and 2025. The report did not take into account potential benefits from lowered greenhouse gas emissions or technological advances that could make cutting carbon emissions cheaper.

At least three potential appointees have backgrounds working for large corporations with activities now or potentially regulated by the EPA, including the French oil giant Total, Phillips 66 and Southern Co., one the largest U.S. utilities.

One of them, Larry Monroe, was previously chief environmental officer at Southern, which has millions of customers in the Southeast. Monroe has particular expertise in how the EPA regulated emissions from coal-fired power plants and criticized the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan, which Pruitt is trying to roll back. Monroe argued that the plan, intended to reduce carbon emissions, was "unworkable and would increase electricity prices to customers while hurting reliability."

In addition, the group includes those who have, like Pruitt, battled the EPA in the past. One is Michael Honeycutt, head of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's toxicology division, who Pruitt announced Tuesday as the new head of the Science Advisory Board. Honeycutt has suggested that the health risks associated with smog are overstated.

The move to prohibit anyone receiving EPA grant money from serving on the board has prompted questions and criticism from independent researchers and from some of the agency's current advisers, who noted that they follow strict ethics procedures to avoid conflicts of interest.

Robyn Wilson, an Ohio State University professor and an advisory board member who specializes in risk analysis, said in an interview that she received a grant this year to work on a project evaluating the extent to which federal funds spent on restoring the Great Lakes have made an impact. The agency approved a roughly $750,000 grant that will be divided among about 10 researchers at three different institutions; about $150,000 would go to Ohio State.

"You want people there with expertise, who have experience with the issues EPA is dealing with," Wilson said, adding that with each assignment board members must "go through a pretty elaborate conflict of interest process" to make clear that they don't have a stake in the outcome.

Angela Nugent, who previously worked for the EPA as the designated federal officer for the board, said that the determination regarding EPA grants would differ from how the agency used to determine when a conflict of interest had occurred.

"It would be a major departure from current policy" to assume that board members have a conflict of interest merely based on their grants, she said.

In the past, Nugent said, the board has required financial disclosures from members in relation to each particular study or project on which they were advising. Determinations of conflict of interest were then made relating to the specifics of the subject matter conflicts, rather than a blanket bar because an individual had an EPA grant.

Current advisory members reached out to Pruitt on Sept. 13, formally asking him to meet with them so they could discuss his agenda and their role in advising the agency.

"Such a meeting would afford you the opportunity to highlight EPA activities and priorities and would allow for a dialogue on how best the SAB can work to ensure the highest quality science supports Agency's policies and decisions," wrote board chair Peter Thorne, a professor of occupational and environmental health at the University of Iowa. "The SAB stands ready to serve and encourages you to take full advantage of the vital resource we can provide."

Pruitt never met with the group.

Chris Mooney contributed to this report.

Read more:

Related: ‘Let us do our job’: Anger erupts over EPA’s apparent muzzling of scientists

Related: EPA just gave notice to dozens of scientific advisory board members that their time is up


Brady Dennis is a national reporter for The Washington Post, focusing on the environment and public health issues.

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's senior national affairs correspondent, covering how the new administration is transforming a range of U.S. policies and the federal government itself. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.

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