Scott Pruitt’s top aide wanted to use special authority to hire a former Obama administration official to scrutinize climate science.
The EPA administrator’s chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, suggested last year that Steven Koonin, a theoretical physicist and an Obama Energy Department appointee, could quickly get on EPA’s payroll. Pruitt and his staff have drawn criticism for using special authority to expedite the hires of political appointees, and EPA’s internal watchdog has launched a probe into the matter.
Pruitt’s team was planning to hire Koonin to convene a military-style "red-team" climate exercise aimed at questioning prevailing climate science.
"Steve, the Administrator remains very excited about conducting this exercise," Jackson told Koonin in a May 2017 email. "He had bounced this and other ideas off others he has worked with for some time and others in the Administration. We would like to proceed further with the red-blue exercise."
Jackson added, "We have determined that the best way to process your paperwork is to compensate you as an ‘administratively determined’ position which is unique in the federal hiring process to EPA. There is no vetting other than OPM paperwork which allows us to have you on the payroll in short order."
The emails were recently released to the Sierra Club under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.
It appears as though Jackson was referring to EPA’s special hiring provision offered by the Safe Drinking Water Act. That allows the EPA administrator to bring in up to 30 employees, known as "administratively determined" hires who can circumvent some of the bureaucracy involved in getting government jobs. Past administrations have used the authority, too.
Pruitt’s use of the authority attracted widespread attention after The Atlantic reported in April that two aides close to Pruitt got substantial raises using the Safe Drinking Water Act provision, against the White House’s wishes.
Pruitt told Fox News that he didn’t know about the raises — which were later revoked. Jackson took responsibility for signing off on the salary bumps (Greenwire, April 10).
Under Pruitt, EPA has brought on at least 20 officials — including top political aides — as "administratively determined" hires, according to EPA documents (Greenwire, April 4). EPA’s inspector general is expected to release an audit of Pruitt’s special hires this summer, and congressional Democrats have introduced legislation that would force EPA bosses to notify lawmakers when they use the hiring authority (Greenwire, May 18).
Jackson and EPA’s press office did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
‘Not going to poke at the science’
Koonin never took the job, he told E&E News yesterday in an interview, and he doesn’t expect the Trump team to launch a red team.
"I decided not to do that at all," said Koonin, who is now director of the Center for Urban Science and Progress at New York University.
After meeting with Koonin last year to discuss Koonin’s Wall Street Journal op-ed about a climate red team, Pruitt called Koonin’s ideas "very exciting" in an interview with Reuters. Koonin later sent Jackson a "prospectus for a Climate Science Red-Blue Exercise," according to an email dated May 3, 2017. Koonin declined to share a copy of the draft with E&E News, but he said he wanted to look at problems with the U.S. government’s Climate Science Special Report.
Many conservatives see a red-team exercise as a vehicle for attacking EPA’s endangerment finding for greenhouse gases, the scientific determination that underpins the agency’s climate change regulations.
But Koonin said yesterday that he only wanted to sign on to such an initiative if it were a governmentwide effort. "If one is going to do a good red-team exercise, it needs to involve those agencies that have strong equities in climate science, and EPA is not that," he said.
The initiative seems to have lost steam more broadly in the administration. Koonin said that he hasn’t talked to EPA officials about the effort in about six months, and he never talked to White House officials about it.
"My general sense is that the executive branch at this point has just decided that they’re not going to poke at the science," he said.
Since Pruitt started speaking publicly about a red-team debate last year, top White House officials have pushed back against the red team. Pruitt — who said last year that it might start in January — hasn’t offered further updates about timing.
Environmentalists, climate scientists and others have slammed the idea of a public debate or another Pruitt-led forum to critique mainstream climate science. Many say the scientific peer-review process provides a rigorous evaluation of the science and that launching a debate would unnecessarily emphasize uncertainty.
"Instead of taking briefings from and respecting the knowledge of EPA scientists or NASA’s and NOAA’s scientists who are among the world’s experts on climate change, Pruitt wants to bring in a bunch of right-wing nuts to run an alternate facts process," said David Doniger, senior strategic director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate and clean energy program.
Koonin said, "I don’t think I’m being crazy." He added, "Why wouldn’t you want to make sure that the government is properly representing the science?"
And although he said he’s not concentrating his energy on the executive branch or the government at this point, he’s still pursuing the red-team idea.
"It’s something I’m thinking about a lot. Stay tuned."