Reforming the Culture of Science at EPA
Climate Change Weekly #298
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is fundamentally transforming itself under President Donald Trump’s direction, from a department producing and funding politicized science to one instilling sound scientific standards for research that should produce results improving the environment and protecting peoples’ health.
Because the economic and social implications of regulations are profound, the science they are built upon must be impeccable.
Over the past few decades—under Republican and Democratic administrations alike—EPA formed a cozy relationship with radical environmental activists and liberal academic researchers. With the support of environmental lobbyists who despise market capitalism (expressed by consumers’ free choices in the marketplace), EPA bureaucrats, in pursuit of more power and expanded budgets for the agency, funded researchers who, because they were largely dependent on government grants for the majority of their funding, were only too happy to produce results claiming industry is destroying the Earth and the only way to prevent an environmental collapse is more government control of the economy.
These reports, however, ignored the fact poverty and hunger have steadily declined and people are living longer and more productively than ever before.
Recognizing this, Trump set about changing the way EPA pursues science: paying greater fealty to the scientific method and removing temptations for scientific corruption.
Not surprisingly, researchers, environmentalists, and bureaucrats who are seeing their power curtailed and their gravy train ending are crying foul.
EPA’s scientific advisory panels are tasked with ensuring research the agency uses to develop and justify regulations is rigorous, has integrity, and is based on the best available science. To better ensure this, EPA changed how it staffs its scientific advisory panels, ceasing to automatically renew existing board members’ terms and instead filling its scientific panels on a competitive basis as each panelist’s term expires.
EPA hopes this will improve the science the agency uses to inform its decisions, by expanding diversity—diversity of interests, diversity of scientific disciplines, and diversity of backgrounds—to bring in a wider array of viewpoints to EPA decision-making.
In addition, to improve accountability, reduce opportunities for corruption, and prevent conflicts of interest, EPA also prohibited members of its federal advisory committees from receiving EPA grants for their research. It was always a foolish practice to allow those recommending, often determining, who gets EPA grants to be in the running for those grants, yet this was business as usual at EPA, with grant makers awarding themselves, research teams they were members of, or their friends, billions of taxpayer dollars over the years.
EPA has attempted to end the use of “secret science,” by proposing a new rule requiring the data underlying scientific studies used by the agency to craft regulations be available for public inspection, criticism, and independent verification.
For years, EPA bureaucrats have used the results of studies by researchers who would not disclose their research methods, assumptions, or underlying data to be examined and tested for confirmation or falsification, to justify regulations costing billions of dollars to businesses and individuals. EPA is finally ending this unjustifiable practice.
Another long-overdue EPA regulatory reform was the decision to end exclusive use of the Linearity No Threshold (LNT) model when assessing the dangers of radiation, carcinogens, and other toxic substances in the environment. Going forward, EPA will incorporate uncertainty into its risk assessments using a variety of more realistic models.
Using LNT as a basis for regulation of environmental clean-ups, setting safety standards for nuclear plants, and limiting low-dose radiation treatments for medical patients has cost lives and millions of dollars.
The LNT model implies there is no safe dose of ionizing radiation or exposure to various other chemicals or toxins. The truth, by contrast, is adverse effects from low-dose exposures to radiation and most other chemicals and potential toxins are often nonexistent. Substances that may be harmful in large quantities can actually be beneficial in small amounts, a fact known as hormesis.
In the commonly paraphrased words of 15th century Swiss physician and astronomer Paracelsus, “the dose makes the poison.” Vitamins, which are valuable in small quantities, and even water, which is literally necessary for life, can become deadly if too much of either is taken over a short period of time. Or consider sun exposure. Although exposure to too much sunlight can contribute to skin cancer, sunlight is required to catalyze the final synthesis of Vitamin D, which strengthens the bones, helping prevent osteoporosis and rickets. There is also ample evidence sunlight can help fight depression, among other ailments.
Replacing reliance on the untenable LNT model with other models of exposure and response will result in better safety and health protocols, potentially saving billions of dollars and thousands of lives each year.
EPA’s faulty science protocols were built over decades, not a day, meaning undoubtedly there are many other policies and standards that should be reviewed and altered by the Trump administration to better serve the American people. One policy that leaps to mind, since I’ve written about it repeatedly, is the need for EPA to rescind its endangerment finding for carbon dioxide.
Carbon dioxide is not a pollutant. It is not toxic at any foreseeable levels, and human carbon dioxide emissions do not endanger human health or the environment. EPA should never have claimed they do. As I explained in a previous Climate Change Weekly, because the endangerment finding is still in place, the Trump administration having been forced to replace the rule with one of its own, the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule, instead of simply repealing and the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which would have dramatically restricted carbon dioxide emissions from coal power plants and thus forced their closure. Although ACE is less costly and prescriptive than CPP, it will still add billions of dollars to peoples’ power bills, cost jobs, prematurely close some (fewer, but still some) coal power plants, and strain household budgets. This could have been avoided if the administration had simply followed the science and withdrew the endangerment finding. It is not too late. ACE has not come into force yet, so the administration has time to get the science and policy right. Let’s hope it does.
In addition, let’s hope the administration enacts reforms at other executive agencies similar to those already adopted by EPA so the regulations they produce are grounded in the best available science, free of political corruption and bureaucratic incentives for agency mission creep and growth.
- H. Sterling Burnett
IN THIS ISSUE …
President Donald Trump selected William Happer, Ph.D., an award-winning physicist and the Cyrus Fogg Brackett professor of physics, emeritus, at Princeton University, to run the National Security Council’s (NSC) Office for Emerging Technologies.
Happer, a prominent climate realist, was awarded the Frederick Seitz Memorial Award at The Heartland Institute’s 10th International Climate Change Conference in 2015.
Recently, Happer was the lead author of a brief filed as part of a tutorial on climate science requested by U.S. District Judge William Alsup in a case filed by Oakland and San Francisco against five major oil companies to get them to pay for damages the cities claimed would come from climate change purportedly caused by fossil fuel emissions. Happer and the other scientists involved explained although climate science is fraught with uncertainties, the best available evidence suggests humans aren’t causing catastrophic climate change and carbon dioxide is not a pollutant but instead is beneficial for life on earth.
Of his work at the Office of Emerging Technologies, Happer told E&E News “he would do his best to ensure that federal policy decisions ‘are based on sound science and technology.’”
In response to a Canadian court’s decision to block the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline intended to carry Alberta oil to the port of Vancouver for shipping to various Asian markets, Alberta’s government announced it was withdrawing from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s federal carbon tax.
Even before the court’s ruling, in July, Alberta allied with two other Canadian provinces, Saskatchewan and Ontario, to fight Trudeau’s federal carbon tax, which their governments have argued will hurt Canada’s economy.
Trudeau’s carbon tax plan imposes a fee on carbon dioxide emissions of $10 Canadian per ton on various sources of emissions (to be determined by each province) in 2018, rising to $50 per ton in 2022.
The court ruling was evidently the final straw sparking Premier Rachel Notley’s decision to pull out of the carbon tax scheme now.
“As important as climate action is to our province’s future, I have also always said that taking the next step, in signing on to the federal climate plan, can’t happen without the Trans Mountain pipeline,” Notley said in a live address on August 30. “With the Trans Mountain halted … until the federal government gets its act together, Alberta is pulling out of the federal climate plan.”
Trudeau’s climate tax is also being challenged in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, whose citizens elected a climate skeptic, Doug Ford, as premier in June.
At an August 29 press conference, Ford announced he was scrapping a carbon tax previously imposed on natural gas as part of the previous premier’s commitment to the federal carbon tax plan.
Ford has referred to Trudeau’s carbon tax plan as “a big scam” and “the worst tax ever, anywhere.”
Ford says eliminating the carbon tax is meant to alleviate an unnecessary financial strain on families and small businesses across the province.
Announcing his decision at Troy’s Diner in Milton, Ontario, Ford said, “[The carbon tax] has nothing to do with protecting the environment, it just is one more way for the government to line its pockets and gouge the people of Ontario. It makes gas more expensive. It makes home heating more expensive. It makes everything more expensive. Driving your car and heating your home is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.”
In an insightful Project Syndicate article, Bjorn Lomborg, director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, shows the world is improving by most measures, and he argues politicians and other public figures focusing on horror stories spun by environmentalists often push for policies that do more harm than the ills they are meant to solve.
For each of the three main categories of development the United Nations focuses on—social, economic, and environmental—the world has experienced “extraordinary progress” over the past quarter-century, Lomborg says.
The most important indicator of progress on the social front is average lifespan, concerning which Lomborg writes, “In 1990, average life expectancy was 65 years. By 2016, it had climbed to 72.5. In just 26 years, we gained 7.5 years of life.” Simultaneously, the gap between the lifespans of the relatively wealthy and the relatively poor has shrunk as well.
Economically, the percentage of people in extreme poverty has fallen from 37 percent in 1990 to less than 10 percent in 2018, amounting to 1.25 billion people having been lifted out of poverty in just 28 years.
The improvement in environmental indicators is just as profound. In 1990, 8 percent of all deaths among the poor were caused by indoor air pollution from people using dung and wood to cook over and to heat and light their homes. Now just 4.7 percent of people die from ailments tied to indoor air pollution, amounting to more than 1.2 million fewer people dying from those causes annually, despite a growing population. In addition, between 1990 and 2015, “[m]ore than one-third of the world’s entire population gained access to improved water,” Lomborg writes, noting access to cleaner water increased by 2.6 billion people in the same period, to 91 percent globally.
Unfortunately, as Lomborg notes, the media largely ignores this good news, believing bad news sells more papers and ad space.
SOURCE: Project Syndicate