As both president and candidate, Donald Trump has made headlines for rejecting some ideas widely agreed upon among scientists, such as the notion that humans are warming the planet.
Trump Cabinet officials have, in turn, rolled back rules meant to curb the release of atmosphere-warming gases in an effort to bolster U.S. businesses they say they are encumbered by regulations.
But even deep within government agencies, groups of independent scientists traditionally consulted by political appointees for policy changes on issues such as public health or worker safety are meeting less frequently — or being asked not to come in at all.
The science advisory committees at the Environmental Protection Agency, Energy Department and Interior Department have met less often in 2017 than at any other time since 1997, when the government began collecting data, according to a new report released Thursday by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
At the EPA and Energy, fewer experts serve on advisory committees than at any point in that 20-year period, the nonprofit advocacy group concluded after reviewing public documents about the boards and interviewing 33 current and former committee members.
“That’s disturbing because that means they’re making decisions without having any independent reference for the scientific underpinnings for those decisions,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the group’s Center for Science and Democracy. “Or they’re completely ignoring the science as they make decisions.”
Advisory panels — composed of independent experts from colleges, companies, nonprofit groups and local governments — are widespread across the federal government. More than 200 such committees are scientific or technical in nature and advise the White House, Congress or federal agencies on everything from disease control to nuclear safety.
Each energy and environmental department had a slightly different rationale for decreases in meetings and membership. All were broadly in line with the Trump administration mandate to slim down the regulations, according to the report.
The Interior Department, for example, said the drop in the number of meetings was because of a review of “the charter and charge” of more than 200 advisory boards and other groups initiated in May, during which the department put a pause on meetings until the fall.
“The Department simply asked for a one or two page memo outlining basic information such as membership, charter, mission, accomplishments, goals, etc,” Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said by email. “Board meetings were temporarily put on hold and by and large have since resumed.”
During the summer, Interior undertook a review of national monuments under the past three presidents, eventually recommending that four of them, including Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah, be reduced in size. At the time, Interior’s meeting freeze applied to all Bureau of Land Management advisory boards, including the Utah Resource Advisory Council, which met only once, in February.
Over the course of 2017, the EPA declined to renew the terms of some advisers, including nine serving on the EPA’s 18-member Board of Scientific Counselors in an effort to make “a clean break with the last administration’s approach,” the agency said in May.
Part of that break involved barring researchers with active EPA grants from serving as advisers because of potential conflicts of interest, a policy change EPA chief Scott Pruitt announced in October.
But the agency still permits industry experts to be on the panels. As a result, the percentage of industry-linked advisers on the EPA Science Advisory Board, which offers scientific and technical advice as the agency crafts environmental regulations, jumped from 6 to 23 percent from last year to this year. The EPA recruited academics and environmental regulators from conservative states to join the panel, as well.
“We plan to use our science boards fully to provide independent advice to the Agency,” EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said by email. “With the change in Administration this past year, and many new priorities for the Agency there is always time needed for the Agency to identify and prepare for scientific review.”
In many instances, advisers were simply not replaced. Although a drop in the number of advisers across the federal government occurred during Barack Obama’s and George W. Bush’s first years in office, the 14 percent decline between 2016 and 2017 was greater than either of the decreases during the two previous presidential transitions.
And sometimes, advisers quit the Trump administration rather than the other way around. On Wednesday, three-fourths of all the members of National Park Service advisory panel resigned in frustration after Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke declined to convene a meeting last year.
“We understand the complexity of transition,” departing board chairman Tony Knowles wrote to Interior, “but our requests to engage have been ignored and the matters on which we wanted to brief the new Department team are clearly not part of its agenda.”
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— More National Parks drama: "The Trump administration is drawing up plans to keep hundreds of national parks and monuments open to the public if the government shuts down this weekend," The Post's Lisa Rein and Juliet Eilperin report Thursday morning. The reason? Parks are popular, and officials like White House budget director Mick Mulvaney want to blunt anger over the disruption a shutdown would inevitably stir up. (Here's the latest on where we stand on a possible shutdown starting tomorrow at midnight.)
"The shuttering of iconic parks proved to be a political flash point during two previous government shutdowns, in 1995 and 2013," Rein and Eilperin write. "On both occasions, Republicans controlled Congress and a Democratic president sat in the White House; both times, Republicans shouldered much of the blame for ruining people’s vacations."
Meanwhile, one of the members of the advisory board for the National Park Service who abruptly resigned on Monday told E&E News a major factor in leaving was the secretary’s policies: “I could not stomach being affiliated with the crazy policies being promoted by Zinke. ... In no way could I envision with this administration that any investment of time in giving advice would produce anything positive," Belinda Faustinos told the publication.
Interior's response to the resignations: "We welcome their resignations and would expect nothing less than quitting from members who found it convenient to turn a blind eye to women being sexually harassed at National Parks," spokeswoman Heather Swift said in an email to The Post.
A report from the department found last year nearly 39 percent of employees within NPS said they had experienced harassment or discrimination in the last year.
David J. Hayes, who served as the Interior's deputy secretary under both the Obama and Clinton administrations, reacted to the statement this way:
Wow. What a mean-spirited, bullshit response from @Interior’s politicals. Breathtaking arrogance.— David J. Hayes (@djhayes01) January 17, 2018
-— He took a picture of Perry with a coal exec. Then he was dismissed: An Energy Department photographer, Simon Edelman, who last year leaked photos he took of a private meeting between Secretary Rick Perry and coal magnate Robert E. Murray, has now come forward after losing his job, the New York Times reports.
The day after the photos were published by liberal magazine In These Times, the department put Edelman on administrative leave. Later, his employment was not renewed. The photos were subsequently published in The Washington Post. Now Edelman, who is seeking protective whistleblower status, has filed a complaint with Energy's inspector general that could spark an investigation into Perry's actions. "It seemed like that was the right thing to do — exercising my First Amendment rights to get the information out there," Edelman told The Times.
— Pruitt interview: The EPA chief detailed his agenda for remaking the agency in an interview with The Wall Street Journal published Wednesday, emphasizing the need to refocus the agency's priorities and make changes quickly. “There’s tremendous opportunity to show really significant results to the American people in a really short time frame,” Pruitt said.
Beyond wanting to repeal and replace the Obama-era emissions regulations and having a public climate change debate, Pruitt said his priorities include cleaning up toxic sites and speeding up the agency’s permit review process. He also wants to adjust internal review processes with the addition of a weekly performance assessment. “That’s the thing that’s been so striking to me as I’ve come into this position … is just the lack of focus and lack of energy and lack of commitment to actually get results,” Pruitt told The Journal.
— Toyota calls off EPA partnership: Meanwhile, the Japanese automaker nixed previously announced plans to work with the EPA to help overhaul the agency’s internal practices, HuffPost reports. Pruitt told lawmakers last month he planned to hire Toyota to recommend some of its internal strategies to the agency — even though the agency is tasked with regulating the emissions of Toyota cars.
Now, a Toyota spokesman told HuffPost the partnership was “not a done deal” and they were “always just in talks anyway.” “We were just looking into working with them, but that was never a promised thing."
— Tempering ANWR expectations: Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency, told senators Tuesday something Democratic members have been trying to point out for some time: it would be “difficult to believe that there will be a substantial amount of oil production coming from [the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge] before 2030, unless we see some surprises in the markets.” E&E News reports. Birol told members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that abundant supply, low oil prices and overall environmental concerns may curtail investment in the refuge for now.
He added: “Having said that … if significant resources and production come from that, this will be good news for the economy and jobs in Alaska."
— Zinke's Sunshine State burn continues: Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) blocked three Interior Department nominees by placing holds on their nominations until Zinke formally excludes Florida from the administration’s offshore drilling plans, his office said in a statement Wednesday.
Nelson warned in a Senate speech that Zinke's deal with Republican Gov. Rick Scott, the Democrat's possible opponent in the 2018 election, is“just empty words” until Interior formally publishes a new draft plan, which it has not done yet.
-— API CEO, out: Jack Gerard, president and chief executive of the American Petroleum Institute, will step down from the top lobby group in August, The Post’s Steven Mufson reports. Gerard has been running the largest oil and gas lobbying group for 10 years, a period that covered the entire presidency of Barack Obama, a frequent target of Gerard’s over policy differences, and the first year of Trump's term.
Among his policy successes are lifting restrictions on crude oil exports, speeding permits for natural gas export facilities, rapidly restarting offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon disaster and — most recently — securing favorable provisions in the GOP's tax overhaul late last year.
— It’s so cold in the South that the Gulf of Mexico is steaming, reports Capital Weather Gang’s Angela Fritz. “Temperatures were so cold Wednesday morning, in fact, that the 64-degree Gulf of Mexico was literally steaming. Meteorologists call it 'sea smoke' but it’s the exact same science as a boiling pot of water or your steamy breath on a cold day. Cold, dry air meets warm water; water evaporates into air until it can’t hold any more; water vapor condenses and steam forms.”
Check out meteorologist Mike Seidel’s video capturing the sea smoke:
Arctic Sea Smoke from Pensacola Beach, FLORIDA! It has to get real cold to see this: 22° air flowing over 64° gulf water this AM will do it ..... and the wind chill was 8°. Even some sleet/snow fell overnight. Video from @davidliberatore #FLwx pic.twitter.com/n1yhGRT3yz— Mike Seidel (@mikeseidel) January 17, 2018
And in the South, there are at least nine cities that have had more snow than Washington D.C. so far, reports Capital Weather Gang’s Jason Samenow. “For snow lovers, it’s a pathetic total,” he writes.
Meanwhile, the Arctic blast is expected to hinder refinery operations in the region, Bloomberg News reports.
— Yes, global warming will be bad, but these scientists say it won’t reach the worst-case scenario: The Post’s Chris Mooney reports on new research suggesting we “may be able to rule out some of the most dire scenarios of what would happen if greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere were to double.” In a new study published in the journal Nature, three British scientists tried to recalculate the “equilibrium climate sensitivity,” a metric that describes how much the planet will warm if carbon dioxide doubles.
A new approach “allowed the scientists to narrow the probable climate sensitivity range to between 2.2 and 3.4 degrees Celsius, with a central figure of 2.8 degrees C (5.04 degrees Fahrenheit), somewhat lower than the previous central estimate,” Mooney writes. “If correct, this would be very good news — suggesting that we may not have to reckon with truly hellish temperature increases by the end of this century.”
- The House Natural Resources Committee holds an oversight hearing on “Examining the Department of Interior’s Actions to Eliminate Onshore Energy Burdens.”
- The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment holds a hearing on modernizing the superfund cleanup program.
- The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment holds a hearing on water resources infrastructure.
- The United States Energy Association holds the 14th Annual State of the Energy Industry Forum.
- The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission holds an overview of low-level waste and spent fuel storage.
- The U.S. Chamber of Commerce hosts “America’s Infrastructure Summit."
- The Heritage Foundation holds an event on the “Power Clash between the U.S. and China in the Pacific.”
- The Center for Strategic and International Studies holds a presentation of the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan’s Energy Outlook 2018.
- The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission holds a meeting.
- The North American International Auto Show continues.
- The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy will hold a hearingon legislation addressing LNG exports and PURPA modernization on Friday.
- A NCAC Lunch Presentation on “Natural Gas Revolution, Meet the Battery Revolution” takes place on Friday.
- The Women’s Council on Energy and the Environment holds its 6th annual Lunch & Learn event to decide what topics to cover in 2018 on Jan. 23.
- The Society of Environmental Journalists, George Mason University and the Wilson Center host an event to launch the annual report on: “The Journalists' Guide to Energy and Environment" on Jan. 26.
- The Center for Strategic and International Studies holds an event on Canada’s energy future on Jan. 23.
- EPA chief Scott Pruitt will testify before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Jan. 31
- FERC Commissioner Neil Chatterjee is scheduled to speak at the 31st annual Power and Gas M&A Symposium on Feb. 1.
Watch Texans react to the snow:
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On Jimmy Kimmel Live, a fake Wolf Blitzer accepts Trump's fake news award: