THE LIGHTBULB

The Agriculture Department’s research leaders appear to be doing damage control after reports that the agency suppressed climate science research and potentially violated its own scientific integrity policies. 

The pushback comes after a Politico investigation found the USDA attempted to keep innovative government-funded climate change research from the public eye. And The Washington Post revealed earlier this year the agency required its in-house scientists to label their peer-reviewed studies as “preliminary” — a policy it reversed in May after criticism that such a disclaimer would diminish the impact of the work or prevent its publication.

In an internal letter sent to all research employees on Friday, USDA scientific directors and administrators argued that the department did not undermine climate research — and had not violated its scientific integrity policy.

“USDA has no policy, practice, nor intent to minimize, discredit, de-emphasize or otherwise influence the climate-related science carried out by USDA scientists and agencies,” read the letter signed by deputy undersecretary Scott Hutchins and several top research officials, including acting chief scientist Chavonda Jacobs-Young. Three USDA employees separately confirmed the letter’s authenticity to The Post.

USDA research contributed to more than 500 articles “related to climate science projects” published in scientific journals in 2018, the letter continued.

“Scientific integrity is of paramount importance in USDA, and the USDA scientific integrity policy specifically states that ‘scientific findings and products must not be suppressed or altered for political purposes and must not be subjected to inappropriate influence.’ ”

The USDA did not offer further comment on the letter. “The email sent to REE employees last week is self-explanatory,” USDA spokesman Damon Thompson said in an email to The Post, referring to the agency’s research, education and economics division.

But Politico uncovered that the USDA withheld a news release about a study that found rice loses nutrients when environmental carbon increases.

The communications office also pressured the University of Washington, whose scientists were co-authors of the report, not to publicize the report. “The intent is to try to suppress a message — in this case, the increasing danger of human-caused climate change,” Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann told Politico.

“When this has to be said, it confirms what we all know,” said a senior employee at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, who spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity to avoid professional retaliation, of the letter. “If this were true, scientists wouldn’t have had to publish their papers as ‘preliminary data.’ Instead, two USDA science agencies are being exiled to Kansas City.”

The employee was referring to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s announcement in June that the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which funds more than a billion dollars each year in agriculture research, and the Economic Research Service, an influential statistical agency, would move out of their Washington offices to Kansas City by the end of September. The decision prompted concerns among current and former USDA employees that the Trump administration was seeking to suppress research through employee attrition and physically moving them far from collaborators.

An analysis by the firm Ernst & Young suggests the move will save $300 million over 15 years. But the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, a professional association for economists, has disputed those savings, arguing the move may cost taxpayers up to $128 million because the initial analysis does not account for the value of lost research data and overstates the cost of keeping the agencies in the capital.

Employees, worried about uprooted families and hampered careers — the agencies frequently collaborate with other Washington-based employees — have quit in unusually large numbers. A recent survey conducted by the American Federation of Government Employees, the union that represents the two agencies, suggests about seven in 10 employees do not plan to relocate to Kansas City.  

“Our staff, with all their years of experience, are leaving for other agencies. We should be focused on this, rather than hastily moving the agency,” Wesley Dean, a NIFA employee and vice president of the local bargaining unit, said in a statement on Wednesday.

Note to readers: Dino Grandoni is on vacation and will be back at the helm of this newsletter on Monday, July 15. Meanwhile, we have an all-star lineup of Post writers to keep you up to date on all your energy and environmental needs. Thanks for reading.

POWER PLAYS

— State Dept. official who was barred from submitting climate testimony steps down: Rod Schoonover, the State Department intelligence aide who the White House blocked from submitting written testimony on climate change, is resigning from the agency. Schoonover is leaving voluntarily, The Post’s Juliet Eilperin reports, adding that still, “the incident that led to his departure underscores the extent to which climate science has become contested terrain under the current administration.” The State Department confirmed he will leave his post Friday. The outgoing aide “spoke before the House Intelligence Committee on June 5 about the security risks the United States faces because of climate change. But White House officials would not let him submit the bureau’s written statement that climate impacts could be ‘possibly catastrophic,’ after the State Department refused to cut references to federal scientific findings on climate change.”

— Arrests in Puerto Rico scandal spur concerns about storm aid: The FBI arrested two former top officials who served in the administration of Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, an incident that pushed Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who leads the House panel that oversees the U.S. territory, to call for Rosselló to resign. “The federal indictment says the former officials illegally directed federal funding to politically connected contractors. The arrests come about a month after Congress approved a controversial disaster aid bill that earmarked additional funding for Puerto Rico’s recovery from Hurricane Maria in 2017, which was tied up in part because President Trump called Puerto Rico’s officials 'incompetent or corrupt,'" The Post’s Jeff Stein reports. He adds "island’s allies fear the arrests will give Trump greater justification for curtailing badly needed aid to the island." 

— The latest in tensions between Iran and Western powers: Britain says it stopped three Iranian vessels from interfering with one of its tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. In a statement the British government said it was “concerned by this action and continue to urge the Iranian authorities to de-escalate the situation in the region.” “Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps denied Thursday that it was involved in challenging the British tanker, which is operated by the London-based oil and gas company BP, saying in a statement carried by Iranian news outlets that there had been no confrontations with foreign vessels in the past 24 hours,” The Post’s Erin Cunningham reports.

— U.S. accuses Iran of ‘nuclear extortion’: In a statement made during an emergency meeting of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the United States accused Iran of “nuclear extortion” and said its latest efforts to increase atomic energy activities would “exacerbate” tensions between the United States and Tehran, Cunningham reports. “There is no credible reason for Iran to expand its nuclear program, and there is no way to read this as anything other than a crude and transparent attempt to extort payments from the international community,” the United States said at the meeting. President Trump also threatened Iran with more sanctions in a Wednesday tweet and without evidence charged that Iran has “long been secretly ‘enriching’” uranium in violation of the 2015 nuclear deal.

THERMOMETER

— New Orleans is preparing for a deluge: The city saw a flash flood emergency on Wednesday in what may have just been a preview of a potential Hurricane Barry that could affect the region this weekend, The Post’s Ian Livingston reports. “Due to the effects of Barry, the Mississippi River is projected to see one of its highest crests on record in New Orleans Saturday, or the highest since the 1920s. The National Weather Service projects the river to crest at 20 feet, which is at the same height levees protect the city."

"No one should take this storm lightly": The National Hurricane Center is predicting that the season's first hurricane, Barry, will hit the coast of Louisiana on Saturday. “The storm is predicted to be a massive rainmaker, unloading double-digit rainfall totals that will probably trigger serious inland flooding. Assuming it attains hurricane strength, damaging wind gusts are likely near where it comes ashore as well as a dangerous storm surge, which is a rise in water above normally dry land that can inundate homes, roads and businesses," The Post's Brian McNoldy and Jason Samenow report. "Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency on Wednesday, warning residents that '[t]his is going to be a Louisiana event with coastal flooding and heavy rainfall potentially impacting every part of the state. No one should take this storm lightly.'"

OIL CHECK

— PG&E’s wildfire woes: California’s largest utility was aware for years that hundreds of miles of its power lines could spark wildfires, but according to documents obtained by the Wall Street Journal, PG&E did not act to solve the problem. “The failure last year of a century-old transmission line that sparked a wildfire, killed 85 people and destroyed the town of Paradise wasn’t an aberration, the documents show,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “A year earlier, PG&E executives conceded to a state lawyer that the company needed to process many projects, all at once, to prevent system failures — a problem they said could be likened to a ‘pig in the python.’”

A judge responds: The federal judge overseeing PG&E’s probation related to its safety-related violations is ordering PG&E to response to the Wall Street Journal’s report “on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis.” William Alsup, a U.S. district court judge in Northern California gave the company until the end of the month to submit a “fresh, forthright statement owning up to the true extent of the” report, according to the Journal. The filing cannot exceed 40 double-spaced pages.

DAYBOOK

Today

  • The House Science, Space and Technology Committee holds a hearing on glacial and ice sheet melt and climate change.