An HONEST Dispute On Science At The Environmental Protection Agency?

2017-04-03T14:15:17+00:00 April 3, 2017|
Logo of the Environmental Protection Agency (Credit: EPA)

(Click to enlarge) Logo of the Environmental Protection Agency (Credit: EPA)

Following in the wake of a sweeping executive order from President Trump that includes removing climate change impact considerations from federal decision-making, environmental regulations and the science that underpins them faced challenges in Congress last week. One such trial came in the form of the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment (HONEST) Act (H.R.1430) , which passed the House Wednesday along near-party-lines votes. Like its predecessor from the last two Congresses, the Secret Science Reform Act, the HONEST Act would mandate the Environmental Protection Agency EPA to create regulations based solely on data that are publicly available online and reproducible. This would limit the agency’s ability to use quality data from outside sources or from unique events, such as natural disasters.

The bill’s sponsor, House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (TX-21), stated his bill promotes “not just any science, but the best science.” He argued that without independent review of the data that inform EPA regulations, those regulations can result in economic hardship with little to no environmental benefit. He and other Republicans have, in the past, accused the agency of not being transparent and have questioned the scientific basis for its actions.

House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (TX-30) led the strong, partisan opposition to the HONEST Act, a bill she called “insidious” and “designed from the outset to prevent EPA from using the best available science to meet its obligations under the law.” She went on to state that the HONEST Act was “constructed to hamstring the ability of the EPA to do anything to protect the American public,” explaining that the agency relies on science drawn from many outside sources that they cannot publicly release. Under the HONEST Act, this would preclude the EPA from using the vast majority of published, peer reviewed science from informing its rule-making process. The HONEST Act also requires that scientific studies relied upon for agency rulemaking be reproducible. However, some legitimate studies are unable to be reproduced, such as those examining natural disasters as well as longitudinal studies.

Representative Paul Tonko (NY-20) submitted for the congressional record a letter written by COL President Jon White opposing the legislation, which asserted that regulations and agency actions should be informed by the best available science and a rigorous scientific process. COL also joined a multisociety letter expressing concerns that the legislation would remove nuanced research concepts like reproducibility and independent analysis from the hands of scientists, placing them in the hands of legislators, that could undermine the scientific process and reduce the benefits that science could bring to society.

In the same vein, the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act of 2017 (H.R.1431) also passed the House on Thursday. The bill proposes the restructure of EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) to require at least 10 percent of the panel be from state, local, or tribal governments, would prohibit SAB members from holding current contracts or receiving grants from the EPA, and would exclude them from applying for agency work or funding for at least three years after serving on the panel. Representative Frank Lucas (OK-3), who sponsored the legislation, claimed the bill would prevent the SAB from being manipulated by special interest groups that receive funding from the EPA and would increase public participation; however, opponents believe this would set a precedent for special interest groups, such as those receiving money from oil companies, to influence EPA activities. Ranking Member Johnson spoke again in opposition, saying that, like the HONEST Act, the bill is designed to harm the EPA’s ability to make informed decisions.

Despite the hours of debate over these two bills this week, both sides of the aisle seemed to want the same, overarching goals – to ensure that the EPA is making regulations that benefit our society, and that they are using the best available science to do so. What the best available science is, however, remains a heated partisan issue.