As U.S EPA promotes its landmark plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at existing power plants, the agency's research office is struggling to define its climate change mission.
Office of Research and Development officials say they're searching for a path forward on climate research that doesn't step on other departments' toes, affect other R&D priorities, drain the budget or exceed political constraints.
"We're trying to work on this from a number of different angles given the limited confines that we have within our mandate and budget that we have," said Dan Costa, program director for air research in the R&D office, at an EPA meeting last week in Washington, D.C.
EPA has 1 percent of federal climate research funding. In the R&D office, climate dollars represent 4 percent of a $96 million budget.
The agency is pursuing climate research through the R&D office and a dedicated budget in the office's new air, climate and energy program, which groups climate and energy with the office's existing air research.
Much of EPA's struggle over figuring out where its climate priorities comes from the reality that every move by the agency -- especially on climate change -- is closely scrutinized by members of Congress and the public.
EPA "may only get 1 or 4 percent of the budget or activity, but I'd say that you probably get about 90 percent of the lightning strikes," said William Schlesinger, president of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y.
The research office recognizes that reality and doesn't want to use up valuable political capital or dollars by pursuing work already being done by other departments, Costa said. That means the office is never going to develop big models to predict that effect of climate change, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration does, nor will it closely look at the effects of climate change on agriculture, he said.
"There's a lot of really great climate science being done academically, at NOAA, NASA, etc.," Costa said. "What's EPA's role in the climate, particularly since in a sense we are in the crosshairs of Congress?"
The agency is still in the very early stages of figuring out what that role should be and how it fits into the research office's work on conventional air pollutants such as ozone and particulate matter, said Andy Miller, associate director for climate in the air, climate and energy program.
The office is focusing on "actionable" climate science that can help out EPA or its partners in the face of lawsuits, Miller said.
That means research that looks at how states should consider climate concerns when writing implementation plans for Clean Air Act pollution standards for example or looking at how cities design water treatment or sewage systems.
"We certainly understand the effects of energy efficiency," Miller said. "And we have some work that probably will be starting to look at what people don't invest in energy efficiency. But we really can't take action as EPA on that. We can encourage people. We have some voluntary programs. But that's not what we get sued on. We get sued on the fact that we're not meeting our requirements under the Clean Air Act or Clean Water Act."
EPA's research office has also focused recently on greenhouse gas emissions from traditional cook stoves and natural gas operations, Miller said. Tools that had historically been used to measure emissions of particulate matter are now being used to measure black carbon, while remote sensing work has shifted from ammonia to methane.
"We have our niche," Miller said. "There is only so much we can do."
But as climate becomes "mainstream," he said, the office is getting requests to explore more issues.
'Wolf at the door'
In a draft document laying out the air, climate and energy program's strategy from 2016 to 2019, the R&D office expressed a desire to do more in climate, including developing tools for communities and individuals to prepare for climate change.
"We're sort of at the seedling end of what we would like to see the climate program become," Costa said.
But in the air, climate and energy program, climate research still receives about 20 percent of the full budget and 12 percent of full-time employees. Air research receives about 80 percent of the funding, while energy receives a negligible amount.
And focus on climate change requires EPA's Office of Air and Radiation to undergo a shift in thinking from short-term priorities -- such as reviewing federal pollution standards every five years, as required by the Clean Air Act -- to more long-term thinking, Costa said.
"They're usually worried about the wolf at the door, as opposed to the wolf down the road," Costa said. "Their needs tend to be more short term."
Some of EPA's science advisers have expressed concerns about the agency's future goals in climate change research, given the constraints.
"The research directions for the Air program are extremely broad, and I have a bit of concern about whether they will result in tangible progress," said Ingrid Burke, director of the Haub School and Ruckelshaus Institute of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming, in a public comment.
Others say that the plans don't go far enough.
"One area of importance is the interaction of climate change with air pollution," said George Alexeeff, director of the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment in the California EPA. "It is hard to see where that research is occurring if it is."
Schlesinger, a science adviser who spoke last week at the meeting in Washington, D.C., said that the agency was focusing on the wrong priorities. EPA's role in federal climate change research should be embarking on science that explores the full consequences of the actions it's taken to address climate change, he said.
Since EPA's plan to lower carbon dioxide emissions from power plants envisions a wide-scale shift to renewable energies, the R&D office should expand its life cycle assessments of renewable energy technologies, he said.
That means looking at the effects of covering up desert ecosystems with huge solar farms or the emission impacts of increasing the mining of rare earth minerals that go into solar panels.
"I would go after those things before I would spend a nickel on cook stoves," Schlesinger said.
EPA's Costa acknowledged those concerns but said the agency's hands were tied.
While EPA has the ability to act as a "manager" and help set the tone of other research efforts throughout the government through various interdepartmental committees, he said, the agency must follow its basic mission of protecting human health and the environment, and ensuring compliance with environmental laws.
"The most important is EPA and what EPA really needs in its mandate," Costa said. "At the same time, we're trying to be a little bit of an insurgency and to reach around that, start to think in broader terms. And for us to just do that, it's easy for us to just be pushed back into our place."