EPA Administrator Pruitt Cleans Up Advisory Committees

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt today is going to announce a new agency policy whereby independent science advisors cannot be funded by agency grants. This post explains the various means by which the EPA receives science advice, and describes why Pruitt’s policy is needed.

At the outset, I should note that not all science advice is created equal. Various statutes create various advisory bodies with varying degrees of power. I’ll go through those briefly.

  • SABs: Congress established a nine-member Science Advisory Board (SAB) in 1978 to provide advice to the EPA and Congress (42 U.S.C. § 4365). The 9-member board, in turn, has the authority to create committees and subcommittees to meet the needs of EPA. Crucially, SABs are discretionary—that is, they essentially serve at the discretion of EPA and Congress. By statute, SABs only “provide such scientific advice as may be requested by the Administrator” or certain congressional committees.
  • FIFRA Panels: In 1975, the Congress created the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Science Advisory Panel. By statute, the panel has a diverse membership. This panel, moreover, has been most likely to push back against EPA staff science when it becomes politicized. For example, the panel disagreed with EPA over the science behind the Obama-era proposal to ban chlorpyrifos. In part, the panel’s disagreement stemmed from the fact that the agency didn’t have the underlying data, though you won’t read that in The New York Times. (Secret science is real!).
  • CASAC: Finally, there is the Clean Air Science Advisory Committee, which is in an altogether different league of power than the previous two. Congress created CASAC in 1977 in order to advise EPA on air quality regulation. CASAC is comprised of 7 permanent members that are supplemented by more than a dozen additional scientists. In fact, CASAC is the most important technocratic body you’ve never heard of. Unlike SABs, the EPA is required to convene CASAC panels. And whereas SAB advice carries modest weight in court, CASAC’s advice is dispositive in court. As such, CASAC wields enormous power over the foundational regulation under the Clean Air Act, known as “national ambient air quality standards.” What CASAC says on these regulations has consequences entailing scores of billions of dollars in compliance costs.

My opinion on these three bodies is different for each one. I’m least worried about the Insecticide/Fungicide/Rodenticide panels. I’m only mildly bothered by SAB panels, due to their limited power. But I’m terribly concerned about CASAC, as I’ve written here, here, here, and here.

Because I’m primarily concerned about CASAC, I use them as an example henceforth, but much of my reasoning as it applies to Administrator Pruitt’s new policy in the CASAC context is applicable to all “independent” science advice received by the EPA. 

According to the EPA, CASAC “provides independent advice to the EPA Administrator on the technical bases for EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards.” Yet there are three lines of evidence to question CASAC’s independence.

  1. First, we know that EPA was stacking CASAC in a legally dubious manner during the Obama administration. The Clean Air Act requires CASAC to have 7 members of diverse membership, including a physician, a National Academy of Sciences member and a state representative (42 U.S.C. § (109)(D)(2)(A)). In order to circumvent this requirement, the previous Administration allowed the same board member to wear multiple roles when serving on the CASAC board. By permitting members to wear “multiple hats,” the EPA gained greater control over the selection process.
  2. Second, congressional investigations indicate that CASAC members were significant beneficiaries of EPA grant money. According to the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee, on the 2015 Obama-appointed CASAC, 6 of the 7 members have received a total of $119,217,008 in EPA research grants.
  3. Third, we know that CASAC members are, in effect, asked to review their own science in their role as science advisors. According to the House Science, Space, & Technology Committee, the CASAC review panel for the Obama-era ozone standard was asked to review EPA science that had cited CASAC panel members more than 700 times.

These facts raise quite a few red flags. The agency has wide discretion to choose the purpose of its grants, and it has created wide discretion in choosing CASAC. During the Obama administration, 86% of CASAC had received more than $100 million from the agency. Finally, the agency asked CASAC to effectively review its own science, which, in all likelihood, was funded by the agency. Does this seem “independent”?

I’ve not read Administrator Pruitt’s new directive, so I don’t yet know all the details. But from what I can tell, he intends to establish a policy that if you currently receive money from the EPA, then you are not eligible to serve on CASAC and perhaps other Science Advisory Boards. This is eminently reasonable, for the reasons I set forth above. If we must have the federal government fund science, then let’s separate the funding from the policy advice, on which literally billions ride; I see no reason why the National Institute of Health or the National Science Foundation can’t fund epidemiological or clinical studies regarding air quality.