Chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) said the EPA has had a political agenda for the past eight years, not a scientific one. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP)

A hearing held Tuesday by the House Committee on Science, Space & Technology promised to focus on “Making the Environmental Protection Agency great again” — but its panel of industry-affiliated witnesses and its discussion of possible new legislation had some lawmakers and scientists worried the opposite may occur.

The hearing’s focus, broadly, was intended to be an examination of the EPA’s “process for evaluating and using science during its regulatory decision-making activities.”

“Today we will examine how the EPA evaluates and uses science in the regulatory process,” said committee chair Lamar Smith, a Republican representing Texas, in his opening remarks. “Unfortunately, over the last eight years the EPA has pursued a political agenda, not a scientific one.”

Smith argued that under the Obama administration, the EPA passed regulations that were “expensive, expansive and ineffective” and suggested that the agency had “relied on questionable science based on nonpublic information that could not be reproduced, a basic requirement of the scientific method.”

Under the new administration, he said, there was now an opportunity to “right the ship of the EPA and steer it in the right direction.”

Other lawmakers took issue with what they perceived to be an assault on the agency’s ability to produce sound science-based regulations.  

“I’m disappointed but not really surprised our very first hearing in this Congress will be focused on attacking the EPA,” said Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, the ranking Democrat on the committee, in an introductory statement at the hearing.

She also expressed concern about the industry ties of witnesses called by the Republican majority to testify. These included Jeffrey Holmstead, a former deputy EPA administrator who is now a lobbyist and lawyer representing fossil fuel energy companies; Kimberly White, senior director of chemical products and technology with the American Chemistry Council, a group representing chemical manufacturers; and Richard Belzer, an independent industry consultant who specializes in environmental and chemical risk assessments and cost-benefit analyses. The fourth witness, called by the Democratic minority, was Rush Holt, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  

“This is not a panel likely to produce an objective examination of EPA’s activities,” Johnson said in her introductory remarks, adding that “limiting the science EPA uses only serves to limit the actions EPA may take to protect public health and the environment.”

Johnson was likely referring to a piece of legislation, slated to be reintroduced soon by conservative lawmakers, which became a particular focus of the hearing’s discussions on Tuesday. Dubbed the “Secret Science Reform Act,” the legislation would require EPA regulations to rely only on science that is both reproducible and publicly available.

The bill, which has been introduced in previous congressional sessions, has generated widespread criticism from scientists who point out that some large-scale environmental studies — for instance, those that examine the effects of oil spills or natural disasters — may be nearly impossible to reproduce. And, they’ve noted, certain pertinent scientific information relating to industry or the personal health of individuals may not legally be made publicly available.  

While endorsed by Holmstead as a way to make government science more transparent, Holt expressed concern about the legislation’s potentially stifling effects on EPA research and regulation.

“The Secret Science Reform Act, as it has previously been introduced, has been based on a misunderstanding of how science works,” he said. “The gold standard is to find other approaches to come up with the same conclusions. Rarely can you repeat an experiment in exactly the same way. What makes more sense is that you approach the problem with a new perspective — that’s not where this secret science legislation is heading.”  

Tuesday’s hearing comes at a time of intense controversy regarding the EPA’s future. Scott Pruitt, President Trump’s pick for EPA administrator, has ties to the fossil fuel industry, has expressed doubt about the extent of human-caused climate change, and as the attorney general of Oklahoma, has sued the agency on multiple occasions over various environmental rules. His nomination, which may be confirmed this week, has met with sharp criticism from liberal policymakers, former EPA employees and environmental groups alike. Since the Trump administration assumed office, it has also been roundly criticized by scientists and activists for certain restrictions it has placed on the agency, including limits on employees’ ability to communicate science and news to the public, as well as a temporary freeze on all EPA grants and contracts (which has since been lifted).

More generally, many Republicans in Congress have criticized what they see as excessive heavy-handedness in past EPA regulations, particularly those aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions from the fossil fuel sector, while Democrats have defended these decisions as being based on the best available science. In fact, while the Secret Science Reform Act may be on the table soon, some Republicans have already introduced a bill that would abolish the EPA altogether.  

Republican concerns about the agency’s rulemaking process remained stark in Tuesday’s hearing. In addition to discussions of the Secret Science Reform Act, the majority’s witnesses testified about bias in the agency’s science advisory board and what they perceived as a tendency to overstate the benefits of environmental regulations.

And in an additional effort to highlight problems with the integrity of government science, several committee members, including Smith, pointed to claims made last weekend by retired National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist John Bates, who asserted that the authors of a high-profile 2015 climate change study flouted a number of data management procedures while conducting their research. However, while it remains unclear whether procedural problems took place at NOAA before the study was published, multiple scientists have defended the paper’s scientific conclusions, which have been independently verified by other studies.

Several members of the committee also made remarks expressing doubt about either the science of human-caused climate change or the effectiveness of EPA’s previous climate policies. In his own introductory remarks, Smith suggested that under the Obama administration the agency was known for introducing legislation that would have “no significant impact on the environment,” pointing to the Clean Power Plan as an example.

It’s an argument that many Republicans have used to justify doing away with the controversial regulation and others like it. But as many scientists have pointed out, while U.S. climate policies may make only a small impact on the planet alone, they are an integral part of global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and international climate goals are unlikely to be met without them.  

Smith is making a concerted effort to turn a committee meant to foster the innovation of the future into one that does the bidding of 19th century fossil fuel companies — and it’s deeply dangerous,” said Liz Perera, climate policy director for the Sierra Club, in a Tuesday statement. “Yelling at science will never change its findings that climate change is a very real threat to every one of our communities.”

Other members of the committee defended the EPA’s activities. Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) commented that the hearing’s title should be to “keep EPA great,” rather than make it great again.  

“This committee should be leading the charge to protect the planet and our environment for future generations,” he said. “Instead, it attacks the credibility of scientists.”  

And in his own testimony, Holt, the minority’s witness, also defended the agency’s scientific process, commenting that scientists should be able to conduct their work without intimidation and that “policymakers should never dictate the conclusions of a scientific study.”

“I’m here to say don’t try to reform the scientific process,” he said. “It has served us well and will serve us well.”