EPA science advisers could face ouster under ‘reset’

By Sean Reilly | 03/26/2021 01:30 PM EDT

EPA says it will end its controversial pandemic enforcement policy in August.

EPA says it will end its controversial pandemic enforcement policy in August. Francis Chung/E&E News

More than three years after the Trump administration tilted the makeup of key EPA science advisory panels in a more industry-friendly direction, the agency is mulling an overhaul that could lead to the ouster of many current members, according to people familiar with internal deliberations.

Under this scenario, EPA would "recompete" the seats of all members of the Science Advisory Board (SAB) and the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), including those whose terms don’t expire this year.

While incumbents would be free to apply, they would be up against other candidates, with current EPA Administrator Michael Regan making the final choices.


That tack, which the SAB’s chairman said would be unprecedented, was one of a series of recommendations issued last year by the Environmental Protection Network, an advocacy group of mostly former EPA employees opposed to Trump-era policies. While EPA would normally seek nominations around now for seats that open up in October, a broader "reset" is under consideration as a way of "undoing some of the damage" caused by the Trump administration, Chris Zarba, a retired head of the Science Advisory Board staff office, said in a recent interview.

That option "is something the Biden administrator is considering, but we don’t have any details on whether they will or won’t," Genna Reed, a senior analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy, said separately.

In an email to EPA employees this week, Regan said he was reviewing the agency’s federal advisory committees to ensure they include top-tier experts with "proper safeguards against conflicts of interest" (Greenwire, March 24). Agency spokesperson Nick Conger declined to comment this morning on specific follow-up steps in the offing.

"I would say that he is taking a range of viewpoints into consideration," Conger said.

While EPA has some 20 panels that provide outside expertise on a variety of topics, SAB and CASAC rank among the most influential. The seven-member CASAC is statutorily charged with assisting in high-stakes reviews of ambient air quality standards for soot, ozone and four other common pollutants; SAB, with 42 members, furnishes advice on an array of scientific and technical matters.

They were prime targets of the 2017 policy imposed by then-EPA chief Scott Pruitt that banned current agency grant recipients from serving on advisory committees and temporarily halted an informal tradition of automatically reappointing first-term members to a second term. Those restrictions allowed Pruitt and his successor, Andrew Wheeler, to recast the composition of both panels to include members with industry ties.

Tony Cox. Photo credit: Researchgate
Tony Cox. | Researchgate

While CASAC, for example, has typically been made up mainly of academic researchers, its current chairman, Tony Cox, was originally nominated by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (Greenwire, Oct. 18, 2018).

The ban on service by grant recipients was challenged in lawsuits brought by the Union of Concerned Scientists and other advocacy groups. After losing in court, the Trump administration scrapped the prohibition last summer (Greenwire, June 25, 2020).

But both panels remain dominated by Pruitt and Wheeler appointees whose views in some cases lie well outside the scientific mainstream on climate change and other issues. As another argument for broadly reopening panel nominations, Reed said it was necessary to assume that an unknown number of potential candidates were thwarted from applying while the grants ban was in effect.

Particularly problematic in critics’ view is the role of Cox, a Denver-based consultant who had done work for the American Chemistry Council and other business trade groups that regularly oppose stricter environmental regulations before his appointment to CASAC in 2017.

As chairman, he was instrumental in shaping the committee’s decision to overrule the conclusions of EPA career staff that the current yearly soot standard is too weak to adequately protect public health.

Instead, the panel in 2019 recommended that the agency stick with the status quo on the grounds that the research underlying the staff’s findings was clouded with uncertainties. Wheeler leaned heavily on that recommendation in opting last year to keep the existing limits in place through at least 2025.

While the Biden administration plans to revisit that decision, "there’s no point in doing the reconsideration" if Cox remains chairman, said George Allen, a former CASAC member who is now chief scientist at a Boston-based consortium of state air regulators. "You’re wasting your time," Allen added.

Cox’s current term doesn’t end until September 2023. In response to emailed questions yesterday, he said that he’s had no discussions with EPA about its plans and that he viewed the impartial review of the scientific basis for the air quality standards as "CASAC’s main duty."

"I disagree with those who argue that the public interest is better served by using their own judgments in place of data and factual evidence about effects of regulations to determine what regulations are needed," Cox wrote. A Chamber spokesperson did not reply to a request for comment.

Science Advisory Board Chairman John Graham’s term similarly ends in 2023. Also via email, Graham, who served as White House regulations chief under President George W. Bush and now teaches at Indiana University, said Regan is wise to comprehensively review EPA’s scientific advisory mechanisms.

If, however, Regan accepts the "bold proposal" to redo all board appointments, "he opens himself to criticism that he is interested in scientific advice only from scientists that he appoints," Graham said, noting that the panel had been critical of the Trump EPA’s handling of the science underlying a number of contentious proposals.

"No new administrator in the agency’s 50-year history has insisted on such domination of SAB," Graham said.

As E&E News has previously reported, Pruitt’s original 2017 directive was enforced unevenly across the full spectrum of EPA’s advisory committees, leaving it unclear how many other panel members were affected by the ban on service by grant recipients (Greenwire, Sept. 21, 2018).