The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continues to become a shell of its former self under Scott Pruitt. The latest salvo: the agency’s rejiggered science advisory board stocked with industry types just killed three committees it has traditionally relied on.
The move is another way in which Pruitt’s EPA is becoming hermetically sealed off from outside, impartial advice. In its place, industry and partisan political voices are taking greater prominence in the debates over policies that affect Americans’ health.
The decision to shut down the Ecological Processes and Effects Committee, the Environmental Engineering Committee, and the Environmental Economics Advisory Committee was made at a late May meeting of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, but researchers on the committees were only notified on Thursday. In an email reviewed by Earther, Tom Brennan, the acting director of the Science Advisory Board office told researchers that, “On the recommendation of the SAB Staff Office, the SAB, unanimously agreed, at our 5/31/18 administrative meeting, to retire three of our current seven standing committees.”
The email went on to say that the decision to disband the committees was made because the “workload does not justify the effort.” Four other committees remain empaneled.
In a response to questions, the EPA reiterated to Earther that keeping the committees “creates unnecessary management and ethics obligations for both committee members and the Agency.” Committee members who spoke with Earther said, however, that they didn’t view it as unnecessary obligations on their end and welcomed the chance to work with the agency. They were also blindsided by the move.
“The message was a surprise,” Timothy Haab, an environmental economist at Ohio State University who was on the economics committee, told Earther. “I fear that losing the advisory committees could jeopardize the objectivity of the science used in making economically sound environmental decisions.”
The three committees axed were largely stocked with academics with subject area expertise the agency could draw on on when it wanted outside advice on rules and policies. The economics committee hadn’t been convened since Pruitt took over running the EPA with its last meeting coming in August 2016, according to the Federal Register. The register shows that ecological committee last met in 2012 though it reviewed a policy in 2016, while the engineering committee last met in 2010.
Sylvia Brandt, another economics committee member and environmental economist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, told Earther that she would’ve liked to see the committee called on more often by other administrations. But killing it means the EPA will lose important outside perspective to help guide its policies. And once it’s gone, she argued it would be harder to get people back in the room as they turned to other obligations.
That means average Americans will lose an advocate at the EPA.
“The way the political process works is that those who are regulated are very, very vocal about all the costs they might incur from being regulated,” Brandt said. “The people who benefit [from regulations], the kids who don’t die, who don’t have asthma attacks, they don’t have a lobbying group. If you don’t have academically trained economists who approach this from a nonpartisan, academic perspective, [they] tend to not be included. Who’s going to play that role of referee at this point?”
Freezing out the referees seems to be exactly what Pruitt is interested in doing. Since his tenure began at EPA, the agency has aimed to strangle objective science in its decision making. The end result has been policies that please industries that produce pollution that can poison Americans and send the climate into a tailspin.
You may recall the Science Advisory Board was turned into an industry playground last year after Pruitt changed the membership rules so only people not receiving EPA grants could be members. The new board is includes deregulatory fanatics, fossil fuel industry scientists, and even a guy who denies smog is a risk for public health.
“There was nothing in my experience at the Agency that would have made me think we needed to enact this sort of makeover,” Christine Todd Whitman, George Bush’s EPA chief, told Earther at the time.
With the recent shut-down of the aforementioned committees, the Science Advisory Board will now be responsible for considering a variety of issues around the economic and ecological impacts of policies. Even putting aside the over-representation of industry, this is problematic. The board may have breadth of knowledge, but it lacks the depth that the other committees brought to the table.
Part of the work Haab, Brandt, and others on the board did was help with cost-benefit analyses— weighing ecosystems and human lives against pollution. Now, a group of people largely beholden to industry will be doing those calculations without the necessary expertise. There are clearly lots of ways it could go wrong.
“It’s like saying you have a broken thumb so I’ll bring in this eye surgeon to fix the bone,” Brandt said. “They’re both doctors, but they do entirely different things.”
This post has been updated with comments from the EPA.