ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY Administrator Scott Pruitt’s expanding ethical cloud is one reason he should not be the nation’s top environmental officer. The other is that he seems determined to ruin the environment. Two major EPA announcements last week illustrate his pattern of siding with industry over experts.
To the cheers of timber industry officials, Mr. Pruitt revealed last Monday that the EPA would treat the burning of wood and other “biomass” as a carbon-neutral energy source. The agency argued that encouraging wood-burning would “promote environmental stewardship by improving soil and water quality, reducing wildfire risk, and helping to ensure our forests continue to remove carbon from the atmosphere.”
But burning biomass releases lots of heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the air immediately. Plants pull carbon dioxide out of the air as they grow back, but that process is extremely slow. The big, initial carbon debt is made up only over decades, if ever. It also takes astonishing amounts of timber to produce meager amounts of energy; it makes little sense to burn plants for fuel in anything but special circumstances.
Nevertheless, the federal government’s environmental authorities are planning to pretend biomass’s environmental profile is on par with solar and wind power, encouraging its use far beyond what is reasonable. Mr. Pruitt took this action even though an EPA expert advisory panel had warned about biomass and was continuing to review the consequences of burning plants for energy.
The next day, Mr. Pruitt announced that he would bar wide swaths of peer-reviewed scientific research from being considered in EPA decisions. The agency declared that it would be blind to any research that did not reveal its underlying data to the public. This is a foolish standard. Studies that rely on confidential patient health information collected in confidence or on secret proprietary product information could be ruled out of agency deliberations. Mr. Pruitt’s pretext was promoting “transparency,” but the effects would be to make the EPA less informed and endanger the public. The agency, for example, should not ignore the strong body of research linking various types of air pollution to major health problems.
Scientists’ and doctors’ groups are distraught. “If these standards were applied to what scientific studies doctors or hospitals can use to inform medical care, we would ignore decades of valuable peer- reviewed health research, and patients would be harmed,” said Mary Rice, an official with the American Thoracic Society.
Mr. Pruitt has spent much of his public life with his head in the sand. If he gets his way, the whole EPA will assume the same position.