By Jonas Monast and Ryke Longest
Scott Pruitt, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is testifying before a House subcommittee today and a Senate committee in January. These hearings will be Congress’s first chance to get answers from Pruitt since he took office. For the past nine months, Pruitt has crusaded against science. In late October, he banned independent scientists who receive EPA funding from serving on its science advisory committees. He went on to make appointments to key committees that increase industry and consulting firm representation while slashing the percentage of academic researchers.
This was more than politics as usual. It is the latest evidence that Pruitt is rejecting the EPA’s core mission of protecting public health. Agency expertise is key to effectively implementing many federal statutes. Members of Congress and their staffs simply do not have the necessary training or bandwidth to evaluate complex data and regularly update laws as new information becomes available. As evidence of Congress’s reliance on agency expertise, 62 members of the House warned Pruitt that his proposed changes to the advisory committees harmed the EPA’s scientific integrity.
Advisory boards play a critical role in ensuring that environmental laws remain effective and informed by the most qualified scientists. Advisory committee members review the latest studies and provide recommendations to inform sound decision-making. Research from EPA grants creates expertise in the fields that can most benefit the agency, which is a key reason the agency funds the grants in the first instance.The Clean Air Act is a prime example. The law requires the EPA to conduct regular reviews of existing air quality regulations to ensure that they protect public health. In a landmark opinion authored by Justice Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court concluded that the law requires the EPA to set pollution limits based on the best available science. The Clean Air Science Advisory Committee, one of the EPA panels subject to the new rules, regularly reviews the quality and relevance of the scientific and technical information being used by the EPA. The committee does not set regulatory standards itself under the Clean Air Act, but it recommends revising air quality regulations if the data demonstrate that doing so is necessary to protect public health.
The process has been a resounding success. The Clean Air Act has dramatically improved the quality of the air we breathe, prevented environmental damage, and saved lives. Pruitt argues that the ban will prevent conflicts of interest, but the Federal Advisory Committee Act already directly addresses the conflict of interest problem which Pruitt claims to be solving. Instead, Pruitt’s actions appear to be a straw man constructed to justify gutting scientific expertise from research university labs. The EPA is one of the nation’s largest funders of research evaluating public health and environmental issues, which means the new policy will bar some of the leading experts from service. In contrast, experts whose sole funding comes from industries that are subject to EPA regulation remain eligible to serve on advisory committees.
Of course, different EPA administrators pursue different policy priorities. Some pursue stringent regulations, while others seek to roll back regulations or pursue alternate strategies. But the laws require agency officials to base those decisions on the best available science and make those decisions in a transparent fashion. A wide range of true experts must be empowered to conduct open debate to insure that the best data and scientific methods are used to solve our environmental problems. An obvious example includes evaluating new risks of emerging contaminants.
Pruitt’s rash actions undermine the effectiveness of the EPA. They frustrate the EPA’s obligation to conduct a robust review of the findings from some of our nation’s best scientists. In so doing, they threaten our environment and our health. It is time for Congress to hold him accountable.
Jonas Monast is the Boyden Gray distinguished fellow at the University of North Carolina School of Law.