Biden picks Trump critic to lead EPA science office

By Sean Reilly, Kevin Bogardus | 09/23/2021 01:44 PM EDT

President Biden will nominate one of the Trump EPA's fiercest critics to lead the agency's science office.

Chris Frey stands beside a sign that says

The Biden administration plans to nominate Chris Frey to be EPA’s assistant administrator for research and development, making him potentially the first person to hold the Senate-confirmed position in nearly a decade. North Carolina State University

A longtime expert adviser to EPA on air issues and an outspoken critic of the Trump administration is President Biden’s choice for leading the agency’s science office.

Chris Frey, whose pending nomination as EPA assistant administrator for research and development was announced by the White House yesterday, was a caustic detractor of how the Trump EPA handled a review of the standards for airborne particulate matter, commonly known as soot.

After rotating off the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee when his term ended in 2015, Frey, then a North Carolina State University professor, served on an auxiliary panel that was aiding the committee in the soot assessment. He and other panel members were summarily fired in October 2018.


Then-EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler later described their dismissal as a streamlining move intended to help the agency meet a self-imposed deadline for completing the review by the end of 2020. Frey and other former members saw it as part of a broader ploy to sidestep the substantial scientific evidence for strengthened soot standards.

Frey didn’t mince words when he addressing the committee at a December 2018 meeting.

“Today, you should ask: Do we have the necessary expertise in all of the most critical scientific disciplines to do this review?” Frey said, according to the written version of his comments that remain posted on an EPA website. “Clearly, the answer is no.”

Frey is now back at EPA, this time as deputy assistant administrator for science policy. Scientists are praising him as the nominee to lead the agency’s research office.

“I think Chris Frey is a great choice,” Linda Birnbaum, the former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, told E&E News. “He has terrific credentials for the position, both in academia and in government.”

Bernie Goldstein, who served as EPA’s assistant administrator for research and development during the Reagan administration, said Frey was “a superb choice” for the job.

“Throughout his career, he has recognized that understanding the importance of the problem is a necessary context for developing and obtaining the right scientific and technical information,” Goldstein told E&E News. “And that solution of the problem depends upon a process that leads to obtaining the right interpretation of the potentially pertinent scientific and technical information.”

If confirmed by the Senate, Frey would take the helm of an office that has not had a Senate-confirmed leader for more than nine years. The last confirmed chief was Paul Anastas, who left EPA in 2012. President Trump never nominated someone to fill the position (Greenwire, July 29).

Moreover, EPA’s scientific workforce was depleted during the Trump years. The agency had a net loss of 600 scientists between fiscal 2016 and 2020, which included 185 from its research office, a Union of Concerned Scientists report found.

“He is taking over an organization that was pretty suppressed during the Trump administration,” Birnbaum said, although adding Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta, formerly the career acting head of ORD, left the office “in good shape” for Frey.

Orme-Zavaleta, who retired from EPA earlier this year, said she was thrilled Frey was chosen as the nominee, calling him “an outstanding, highly qualified scientist” who understands the agency.

“He has a terrific working relationship with ORD career leadership and the other politicals in the agency,” Orme-Zavaleta said in an interview. “He is thoughtful, understands the science linkage to policy decisions and will be a strong advocate for science.”

Frey is one of the last EPA nominees named by Biden. The White House has now announced 11 nominees for the agency, with only EPA’s air office still lacking a nominee.


Republican opposition

Frey might wait months for Senate confirmation. He is likely to face Republican scrutiny during the process.

Earlier his month, GOP members of the House Oversight and Reform Committee pressed EPA on what they called Frey’s “strong China ties,” having taken a leave of absence from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (Greenwire, Sept. 7).

Republicans in the past have criticized the outcome of his work as an EPA adviser.

From 2012 to 2015, for example, Frey chaired the CASAC, which is charged with providing outside expertise to the agency during reviews of ambient air quality standards of common pollutants. During his tenure, the committee — saying that the scientific evidence warranted stricter limits — set in motion the process that in 2015 led EPA to tighten its ground-level ozone standard to 70 parts per billion.

Among the critics of that decision was Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), now the ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which will have first crack at Frey’s nomination.

In a 2015 statement after EPA announced the 70 ppb limit, Capito said it would “jeopardize our ability to create new manufacturing jobs at a time when West Virginia’s growing natural gas reserves should mean more factories and plants are coming online.”

Asked for comment on Frey’s planned nomination, a Capito spokesperson said in an email today that the senator “will judge each nominee based on a holistic sum of his or her testimony provided, past work and experiences, and answers to questions submitted for the record.”

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the EPW Committee, said in a statement, “Dr. Frey’s nomination is the latest example of the Biden administration’s commitment to restoring scientific integrity at EPA.”

Carper also said, “I look forward to meeting with him and having him come before the Environment and Public Works Committee.”

The agency is ready for Frey’s confirmation. EPA spokesperson Tim Carroll said Frey is “highly qualified” to lead the agency’s research office, citing his service on the agency’s advisory panels and past academic work.

“Dr. Frey is well-positioned to lead the agency’s research programs and ensure that science is at the backbone of everything the agency does to deliver on our public health and environmental protection mission,” Carroll told E&E News.


‘I think he knows his limits’

Frey and other former members of the auxiliary panel later unofficially regrouped under the auspices of the Union of Concerned Scientists to conduct their own review of the soot standards. Frey chaired the panel, which found that both the annual and daily standards needed tightening in order to prevent thousands of premature deaths each year.

“He is a tireless advocate for science-informed policymaking,” Peter Adams, an environmental engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University who also served on the unofficial panel, told E&E News.

While the panel was unofficial, Frey insisted that it operate in accordance with EPA protocols, according to Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy, and John Balmes, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, who also served on the panel.

“We were all very impressed and pleased with his leadership,” Balmes said in an interview. “Not only is he bright, but he’s a good critical thinker.” Balmes’ one caveat was that the Office of Research and Development has a portfolio that’s broader than the air quality effects research that is Frey’s specialty.

Balmes added, however, that “I think he knows his limits with regards to where he needs to seek help.”

EPA’s official review of the particulate matter standards ended last December with Wheeler’s decision to leave the standards unchanged, despite the conclusions of agency career staff that the annual benchmark should be tightened.

Under the Biden administration, EPA is now revisiting that status quo decision, with meetings of a recently appointed advisory panel scheduled to begin next month.