Politics-driven ‘secret science’ initiative isn’t going over well with EPA staff

One EPA member with industry ties said the anti-science measures would hinder the agency's own work.


Internal efforts to introduce a “secret science” initiative requiring all data used by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) be made public has been met with concern not only from scientists and environmentalists but from members of EPA head Scott Pruitt’s own staff.

Plans to adopt anti-science rules pushed by longtime climate denier and House Science, Space, and Technology Chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) have seen resistance from employees within the EPA, Politico first reported Friday. Smith has pushed for restricting the EPA’s use of scientific evidence, arguing should only use scientific studies based on public data.

As critics have pointed out in the past, the impact would be to impose a dramatic burden on EPA officials effectively limiting their ability to introduce new protections for health and the environment.

And now, according to internal emails obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and shared with ThinkProgress, even members of the EPA with deep industry ties are concerned about the initiative’s implications.

In the emails, Nancy Beck, deputy assistant administrator at the EPA chemicals office, expressed worry over that approach. Prior to working at the EPA, Beck worked at the American Chemistry Council, a powerful lobby group whose members include Dow Chemical, DuPont, Monsanto, ExxonMobil Chemical, and Chevron Phillips Chemical.

Writing to Richard Yamada, who works for the EPA’s Office of Research and Development and previously had a role working with Rep. Smith in drafting legislation restricting scientific studies to public data, Beck highlighted the staggering costs associated with requiring data be published, as well as concern over the restrictions on using chemical industry data.

“Making data available is very different than requiring a publication requirement. Such a requirement would be incredibly burdensome, not practical, and you would need to create a whole new arm of the publishing industry to publish these types of studies that nobody is interested in,” she wrote in one January email.

Beck’s criticisms echo a previous report by the Congressional Budget Office that found it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and a lot of time by administrators, to create such a database.

“These data will be extremely valuable, extremely high quality, and NOT published,” Beck continued, nodding to the fact that the new rule would not just impact climate science but industry information pesticide companies do not want to make public. “The directive needs to be revised.”

Beck also noted in a later March email that courts have determined underlying raw data is not necessary for the EPA to make policy decisions.


EPA planning to adopt climate denier Lamar Smith’s unpopular anti-science rules

While they come from an industry perspective, Beck’s emails reflect the wider sentiments shared by scientists and environmental experts. Creating a database of scientific data used by the EPA would be a costly, overwhelming endeavor, one further hindered by the need to redact confidential information such as patient information included in health-related data or sensitive corporate information. More broadly, making such data public could put scientists at risk, to say nothing of breaching confidentiality rules.

Smith has long advocated for such measures regardless and sponsored the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment (HONEST) Act, essentially a congressional version of the approach currently under consideration by the EPA. The HONEST Act passed the House in March 2017 but it has stalled ever since, with slim chances of proceeding.

Additional emails obtained by UCS confirm that Smith met with Pruitt in early January to discuss implementing the HONEST Act administratively in order to bypass Congress. The documents indicate the current initiative is driven largely by politics, the UCS says, rather than concern for data integrity and the work the EPA does more broadly.

“The biggest takeaway was the policy to restrict the use of science that has been floated around, but not officially confirmed — hatched by political appointees doing their best to make sure independent scientific analysis does not get in their way,” said Yogin Kothari, senior representative at UCS, told The Hill.

Under Pruitt’s leadership, the agency has repeatedly touted work authored by deniers of climate science, in addition to elevating writing from conservative publications like the Daily Caller. A review of Pruitt’s public calendar by ThinkProgress indicates the EPA administrator also prioritized giving speeches to right-wing think tanks funded by the Kochs and Mercers during his first year with the agency, in addition to meeting frequently with industry groups (and none with environmental or public health groups).

Pruitt is under fire for more than partisan politics. The EPA head’s spending habits have drawn the ire of Congress, including the installation of a $43,000 sound-proof privacy booth. Questions over Pruitt’s alleged misuse of funds led 170 lawmakers to sign a resolution calling for his resignation on Wednesday. The internal watchdog at the EPA has launched half a dozen investigations into the issue.

Think Progress is a publication of the Center for American Progress Fund.