EPA’s outside science advisers want to see the science behind Pruitt’s policy decisions

It's time to look at the science.

Andrew Wheeler began his first officials day as acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency on July 9, 2018. Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Andrew Wheeler began his first officials day as acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency on July 9, 2018. Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The Environmental Protection Agency’s outside science advisers want to see the specific scientific basis for several of Administrator Scott Pruitt’s most substantial regulatory rollbacks.

In a vote Thursday, the EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) initiated reviews into Pruitt’s so-called “secret science” proposal, along with five flagship policies, including repealing the Clean Power Plan and the rollback of auto emissions standards.

Pruitt must now decide whether to accept the SAB’s request that its outside scientific experts be allowed to formally review his decisions.

The formal request comes after the EPA failed to respond in recent months to the SAB’s initial questions regarding how the agency would ensure its decisions to dismantle Obama-era climate policies were based on accurate scientific evidence.


“The common theme throughout this was we asked EPA for information and didn’t get any,” Michael Honeycutt, SAB chairman appointed by Pruitt last fall, said during the meeting.

The board’s 44 members, many of whom were appointed by Pruitt and come from an industry background or hold more conservative views, voted unanimously to review Pruitt’s proposal to require all underlying data from studies used to develop rules to be made public — an idea inspired by climate science denier Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and widely opposed by the scientific community.

Only two Pruitt-appointed SAB members voted against reviewing the five other EPA policy changes: Larry Monroe, former chief executive for utility Southern Co., and Stanley Young, a former pharmaceutical statistician and current chief executive of an analytics firm.

In addition to the Clean Power Plan and auto emissions standards, the other rule changes to be reviewed concern methane regulations on new oil and gas operations, carbon emission rules for power plants, and emission rules to limit pollution from trucks.


Pruitt was invited to Thursday’s board meeting but did not attend, instead releasing a statement that said: “We look forward to the Board’s feedback and insight that develop from this meeting.”

The board will now send a letter to Pruitt detailing the results of Thursday’s meeting and outlining specific requests for additional information, Thomas Brennan, acting director of the staff office, told ThinkProgress. It’s unclear how long each review will take and any further actions will only be taken depending on the outcome of the reviews.

“It could go many directions,” he added. This includes the potential of dropping a review if the SAB feels an office has a strong scientific basis, such as “a rock-solid peer review plan,” Brennan explained.

There is the possibility, however, that Pruitt decides not to take up the SAB’s recommendations for initiating reviews, or that, once the SAB issues any further findings or recommendations, the administrator can also choose not to implement them.

Effectively, “it remains to be seen what will happen,” Genna Reed, a science and policy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told ThinkProgress. “Based on Administrator Pruitt’s track record… it seems unlikely that he will be receptive.”

There is an encouraging sign for scientific integrity, however: “The fact that they overwhelmingly voted in favor to review is significant, just because it’s sort of a message from the independent scientific community that the EPA needs to do a better job in its reviewing and reconsidering rules that were initially based in science,” Reed said.


Thursday’s meeting also marked the first time the board has met since Pruitt introduced a new rule barring scientific researchers from serving on the board who had received grants from the EPA. There is no such ban for individuals who have received industry money. The Government Accountability Office is currently investigating how the EPA selects members for its federal advisory committees.