The Trump administration continued its reshaping of how science is evaluated at the Environmental Protection Agency with the appointment Thursday of a slew of new members to a key advisory panel.
Among the eight additions to the agency's Science Advisory Board are a number of members whose ideas run against mainstream scientific thinking on issues that include the health effects of radiation and the modeling of Earth's climate.
Andrew Wheeler, the acting EPA chief, added the eight new members while reinstalling eight others selected during the Obama administration. He cast the appointments as a reaffirmation of the Trump administration's commitment to hearing scientific opinions from a diverse set of voices.
“In a fair, open, and transparent fashion, EPA reviewed hundreds of qualified applicants nominated for this committee,” Wheeler said in a statement. “Members who will be appointed or reappointed include experts from a wide variety of scientific disciplines who reflect the geographic diversity needed to represent all ten EPA regions.”
But critics of the administration see this and other moves under Wheeler and former EPA chief Scott Pruitt as part of a larger push to make the agency's decisions more friendly to industry.
“The general makeup of the Science Advisory Board has changed significantly in the past two years,” said Genna Reed, a science and policy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “What we're seeing is a decrease in the number of academics and a surge in the number of industry and consulting-firm members.”
With the announcement Thursday, 26 of the board's 45 members have been appointed by the Trump administration.
The best-known new member of the panel, though, actually does work at a university. John Christy, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, is perhaps the most prominent climate skeptic in all of academia.
Christy acknowledges that humans have altered Earth's climate. But he's a polarizing figure within the climate science community for his criticism of mainstream climate models produced by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and of scientific conclusions about the severity of global warming reached by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Pointing to his own analyses of satellite temperature data, which suggest that observed warming is on the lower side of projections, Christy has argued that atmospheric temperatures are less sensitive to the buildup of greenhouse gases than the majority of other climate scientists say they are.
Among the many scientific institutions that say global warming is dangerous is the EPA itself. In President Barack Obama's first year in office, the EPA determined greenhouse gases posed a risk to public health, giving the government the legal justification it needed to try to curb emissions from cars, coal plants and other sources.
Christy takes issue with EPA's “endangerment finding.”
“I, as well as many others, am very skeptical of the basis of many of these findings, like the endangerment finding,” Christy said in an interview Thursday.
He said he believes the EPA's reliance on what he regards as faulty climate models have led it to issue misguided rules for polluters. “If you use bad models,” he said, “you're likely to come up with bad regulations.”
Christy is often called on by Republicans leery of government climate regulations to testify before Congress. At a 2015 House Science Committee hearing, Christy described the study of climate change as a “murky” science. “We do not have laboratory methods of testing our hypotheses as many other sciences do,” he said in his written remarks. “As a result, what passes for science includes opinion, arguments-from-authority, dramatic news releases, and fuzzy notions of consensus generated by preselected groups."
Michael Mann, a climatologist at Pennsylvania State University who has testified opposite Christy before lawmakers, has argued that Christy’s findings have become "a central pillar in the case for climate change denial" despite the fact they have "been shown to be an artifact of faulty computations."
The advisory board will also now include Brant Ulsh, a health physicist at M.H. Chew & Associates whose work focuses on low-dose radiation.
In the past, the EPA has maintained there is some risk of cancer from any exposure to radiation. But Ulsh argues the way the government has modeled the health effects of small amounts of radiation exposure at places like nuclear power plants overplays that risk.
"Right now we spend an enormous effort trying to minimize low doses," Ulsh told the Associated Press last year. "Instead, let's spend the resources on minimizing the effect of a really big event."
Another new panelist is Richard Williams, an independent consultant and former Food and Drug Administration official who has praised the Trump administration for cutting regulations.
In the fall of 2017, Pruitt upended the agency's key advisory groups, announcing plans to jettison scientists who have received EPA grants.
The move set in motion a potentially fundamental shift, one that could change the scientific and technical advice that historically has guided the agency as it crafts environmental regulations.
“It is very, very important to ensure independence, to ensure that we're getting advice and counsel independent of the EPA,” Pruitt told reporters at the time.
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 past three years. He noted that researchers would have the option of ending their grant or continuing to advise EPA, “but they can't do both.”
Some former advisory board members sued the agency, calling the new policy “unlawful, arbitrary and capricious.” They argued that Pruitt did not have authority to change the agency’s ethics rules.
Robyn Wilson, a professor at Ohio State University and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, told The Post at the time that as a first-time EPA grant recipient whose term on the agency’s Scientific Advisory Board was cut short, she viewed the policy change as “morally reprehensible.”
“It all sounds very well intentioned, wanting more diversity on the boards, wanting more voices to be heard. Who is going to disagree with that?” Wilson said then. “But I think it is an attempt to get rid of people who they assume are not on board with the current administration’s goals, which are deregulatory.”
Wheeler reaffirmed that his new appointees will remain “financially independent” from EPA grants. But he did differ from his predecessor in one way by reupping the terms of Obama-era members.
“It's a nice departure from the Pruitt administration,” Reed of the Union of Concerned Scientists said. “It's good to see that Wheeler is acknowledging the value of institutional knowledge on these advisory boards.”
Brady Dennis contributed to this report
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POLAR VORTEX WATCH:
Millions of Americans are enduring record-shattering cold: The Arctic blast has “frozen the Great Lakes, taxed electrical and natural gas infrastructure, endangered livestock and tested the mettle of millions who are used to the cold but had never experienced anything like this,” The Post’s Katie Mettler, Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Angela Fritz report. The extreme cold has been blamed for several deaths, including people who may have frozen to death in Milwaukee, Detroit and Rochester, Minn. Local officials also believe an Iowa college student found near his dorm died after exposure to the subzero temperatures.
Record cold: Norris Camp in northwestern Minnesota was the coldest location in the country on Wednesday after a drop to minus-48 degrees, The Post’s Angela Fritz reports. Wednesday was also the second-coldest day in Chicago’s history. More than 680 temperature records were broken or tied throughout the week, per the Midwest Regional Climate Center.
If you live in the Washington region: “It’s a good morning to stay aware of the weather. Even if we see just snow showers and/or a period of light snow, it’s been cold enough that anything will stick,” The Post’s A. Camden Walker reports. “Fortunately, it won’t hang around too long into the day, so the drive home should be much easier."
Freeze prompted closure of a nuclear reactor in New Jersey... The Salem Nuclear Power Plant’s Unit 2 reactor was shut down overnight on Wednesday because of below-freezing temperatures, the Associated Press reports. Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Neil Sheehan said the plant’s Unit 1 reactor also decreased power to 88 percent.
...and of car factories in Michigan, too: High energy demand coupled with an explosion and fire at a natural-gas facility in Michigan led to the closure of some auto plants and a call for consumers to reduce usage, the Wall Street Journal reports. General Motors said it shut down production at more than a dozen plants, though some reopened later in the day. Some shifts were canceled at Fiat Chrysler and Ford Motor Co. reduced temperatures at some facilities and paused some energy-intensive processes.
Due to extremely high demand for natural gas with record-low temperatures, and an incident at a facility, @ConsumersEnergy has asked everyone who is able to please turn down their thermostats to 65° or less until Friday at noon. #MIREADY pic.twitter.com/FWKCZnu9QA— Governor Gretchen Whitmer (@gretchenwhitmer) January 31, 2019
The disruption in natural-gas service also prompted Michigan officials to ask residents to turn down their thermostats. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) asked "everyone in the Lower Peninsula turn our thermostats down to 65 degrees or less from now until Friday at noon so that we can get through this storm with minimal harm.”
“This nitwit governor”: Weatherman Al Roker criticized Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin on MSNBC after the Republican governor said “we’re getting soft” by closing schools because of the cold. “By the way, I just have to say this nitwit governor in Kentucky saying that, ‘Oh, we’re weak,’ these are kids who are going to be in subzero wind chills,” Roker said. “No. Cancel school. Stop it. You know, adults, if they want to be out there, that’s great. These are our children.”
— A surprising new understanding of ocean circulation: A new research project signaled that what scientists thought they knew about “overturning” circulation in the Atlantic Ocean was wrong. Scientists have warned the overturning could slow down because of climate change. But a 21-month observation series off Greenland “has led to the discovery that most of the overturning — in which water not only sinks but returns southward again in the ocean depths — occurs to the east, rather than to the west, of the enormous ice island,” The Post’s Chris Mooney reports. “If that’s correct, then climate models that suggest the circulation will slow as the climate warms may have to be revised to take this into account.”
— Gigantic hole discovered in Antarctic glacier: A massive hole that is 1,000 feet high has been discovered under Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier, a result of about 14 billion tons of ice that mostly melted over the past three years. The glacier is one of Antarctica’s fastest melting and scientists believe it accounts for about 4 percent of global sea rise, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said this week. “We have suspected for years that Thwaites was not tightly attached to the bedrock beneath it,” said JPL’s Eric Rignot of the University of California at Irvine. “Thanks to a new generation of satellites, we can finally see the detail.”
— Seals took over California beach during shutdown: When federal employees returned to Drakes Beach after a month-long partial government shutdown, there were about 90 elephant seals that had taken over a space usually reserved for people. Park officials at the beach, which is part of Point Reyes National Seashore, usually wave blue tarps to shoo away seals, but when those tarp-wavers were furloughed, the seals saw an opportunity, The Post’s Cleve R. Wootson Jr. writes.
— Public lands bill set for a vote next week: With the government shutdown over, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is teeing up a vote next week on a public-lands bill that has bipartisan support. The package includes permanent reauthorization for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which pays for park and wildlands conservation with oil and gas revenue.
Why hasn't it already passed: The bill has been tripped up numerous times, most recently last December by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) after he said he would only if the measure exempted his state from the Antiquities Act, used by presidents to set aside land as protected national monuments. Lee spokesman Conn Carroll said by email the senator is "[d]efinitely still opposed to permanent reauthorization of LWCF."
— Trump administration's cross-country plutonium shipment enrages Nevadans: The Trump administration disclosed as part of a federal court case in Nevada that it secretly shipped one-half metric ton of weapons-grade plutonium from South Carolina to Nevada over the objections from the Silver State, the Reno Gazette Journal reports. Elected officials in Nevada, where nuclear waste storage is a hot-button issue, were livid. “I am beyond outraged by this completely unacceptable deception," Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) tweeted while Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D) said she put Energy Department officials "on notice" after meeting with them this week.
Energy Department pushes back: In a statement, it said it was “inaccurate to state that the Members of the Nevada delegation were not informed of this movement. The Department of Energy was as transparent as operational security would permit.”
Today I am announcing that I am no longer seeking a third term at FERC, and will be leaving the Commission later in 2019. While this is not the outcome I had hoped for, I feel very lucky to have served on FERC for more than eight years (and counting).— Cheryl LaFleur (@CLaFleurFERC) January 31, 2019
— Last Obama pick on energy panel is stepping down: Cheryl LaFleur, a Democrat on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, announced on Twitter she would not seek a third term on the regulatory panel. LaFleur said she plans to stay until the end of June, but she may need to remain longer if a successor is not confirmed by then. After Trump installs her replacement, he will have chosen all five members of the commission.
— The return of the oil train: Crude oil transport via trains has seen a comeback in recent years as North American oil production has surpassed what pipelines can handle. “Much of the recent oil train growth is due to record shipments from Canada, where pipeline expansion projects, including Keystone XL and Trans Mountain, have stalled amid environmental opposition and legal delays,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “The crude-by-rail comeback is expected to last through late this year in the Permian, and longer in North Dakota and Canada, as companies struggle to lay new pipe as quickly as drillers are getting oil out of the ground.”
- Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy hosts an event on Prospects for Climate Solutions on Feb. 6.
- Politico hosts an event on clean energy innovations on Feb. 6.
- FERC chairman Neil Chatterjee is scheduled to speak at the Energy Storage Association’s 2019 Energy Storage Policy Forum on Feb. 13.
— When the senior senator from Alaska says it's cold, it's cold: