Trump order targets advisory committees

By Niina H. Farah, Kevin Bogardus, Michael Doyle | 06/17/2019 01:31 PM EDT

More than half of EPA’s science advisory committees could be vulnerable to repeal by the end of the fiscal year under an executive order released Friday.

EPA headquarters in Washington.

EPA headquarters in Washington. Robin Bravender/E&E News

More than half of EPA’s science advisory committees could be vulnerable to repeal by the end of the fiscal year under an executive order released Friday.

The president is requiring federal agencies to make swift and deep cuts to the number of panels that provide regulators with independent policy guidance.

The order mandates that agencies review the effectiveness of committee and eliminate by Sept. 30 "at least" a third of eligible panels established under the Federal Advisory Committee Act.


Trump’s order also caps the total number of advisory bodies across the government at 350. That’s a sharp decrease from approximately 1,000 total committees at federal agencies at any given time, according to the General Services Administration.

Agencies may decide an advisory committee is no longer needed if it has already achieved its objective, its work is now obsolete, or the costs of the committee exceed its benefits. They would be able to count committees eliminated since Jan. 20, 2017, toward the 350 cap.

An EPA spokesman did not say which of its advisory committees would be eligible for repeal. EPA relies on its advisory committees for review and guidance on research, which helps lay the foundation for regulations to protect human health and the environment.

"EPA will review its FACA obligations in line with the President’s executive order," the spokesman said in an email over the weekend.

An E&E News analysis of a publicly available FACA database found 14 of EPA’s 22 committees could be vulnerable to repeal because they were established by either agency or presidential authority.

Of those 14 potentially vulnerable committees, 11 were established through agency authority, with four committees’ charters expiring this year.

Those are the Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee, Environmental Laboratory Advisory Board, Local Government Advisory Committee and Pesticide Program Dialogue Committee. The remaining three committees were created under presidential authority.

Eight of EPA’s advisory committees, including the high-profile Science Advisory Board and the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, appear to be exempt from a new executive order because they are enshrined in law.

EPA may still decide to protect its committees from being dissolved. The executive order states federal agencies would be able to apply for waivers from the Office of Management and Budget.

‘Potentially devastating’

Former EPA officials worry that the executive order could be another blow to the agency’s scientific work.

The agency’s committees have already undergone a number of changes under the Trump administration, including former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s decision to exclude membership on advisory committees for those with EPA grants. The agency also recently disbanded CASAC’s subcommittees and cut the total number of standing subcommittees within SAB from seven to four.

"It could be potentially devastating to the scientific enterprise at EPA," said Thomas Burke, who served as EPA’s science adviser during the Obama administration’s latter years and is now a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

"When you have so many controversial appointees representing business interests or polluter interests some would say, to have more of a cloak of secrecy on the process, it really undermines the credibility of the agency," he said.

Bob Kavlock, former acting head of EPA’s Office of Research and Development, said panels like EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors, its Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee, the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, and the Environmental Laboratory Advisory Board are vulnerable.

"The vulnerable ones under this order are likely to be the optional ones dealing with science and public health issues," said Kavlock, who retired from EPA in November 2017 after spending 39 years at the agency.

"It would be particularly worrisome if the BOSC was targeted, as I doubt there is any federal agency with a significant research budget that doesn’t solicit recommendations from outside scientists on the quality and direction of the research being undertaken. It provides valuable advice to the national program directors in how effective are their investments in the various programs," he said.

Observers and advocates are worried that having EPA eliminate some of its advisory boards will lessen outside scrutiny of the agency.

"My fear is that such a move will in fact be a further attempt to exclude essential external, objective scientific advice and ‘circle the wagons’ to eliminate scientific scrutiny and peer review," said Deborah Swackhamer, a former chairwoman of EPA’s BOSC and its Science Advisory Board.

Chris Zarba, a former staff director for the Science Advisory Board, said EPA’s maintaining the panels has not come at a great cost to the agency. The White House has touted savings it could secure under Trump’s order.

"Standing committees cost very little. They only bill the agency if you use them," said Zarba, who retired in February 2018 after spending 38 years at the agency.

John Graham, a current SAB member and former administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under President George W. Bush, suggested a better approach would have been to reduce the overall membership in committees rather than the total number of them. He called the one-third cut "a bit arbitrary."

"My own view is that the standing Science Advisory Board at EPA is needed but may be too large," he wrote in an email, adding that, with nearly 50 members, having "meaningful dialogue" was difficult.

Graham pointed out that in addition to applying for waivers, there is an exemption for "merit" review panels, such as those used by the Food and Drug Administration to review medical devices and by EPA to consider pesticides and biotechnology products.

"It is encouraging to see some effort to clean house of needless advisory committees rather than always adding more of them," Graham wrote.

Department of Energy

At the Energy Department, about a dozen advisory committees could be affected, but exactly which ones remains unclear, analysts said.

The key committee in jeopardy is the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board, according to Jeff Navin, a former chief of staff at the agency.

SEAB was established decades ago in the George H.W. Bush era and, according to Navin, has a long history of offering the agency heads expertise on various energy, science and national security issues. The committee has only met once in the Trump era.

Other committees that could be affected inform decisionmaking on various topics. They include the Appliance Standards and Rulemaking Federal Advisory Committee, National Petroleum Council, Environmental Management Site-Specific Advisory Board, and Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee. These committees were all established under agency authority.

Some of these agency-established committees also have charters set to expire this year. The Advanced Scientific Computing Advisory Committee’s charter ends on June 30.

The Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee’s charter ends July 28, the Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee’s charter ends Aug. 4, and the Biological and Environmental Research Advisory Committee’s charter ends Dec. 11.

"Given the technical nature of a lot of DOE’s work, many of the advisory committees are made up of scientific and technical experts who can help guide the research and missions of the agency," Navin wrote in an email. "Picking an arbitrary number of committees to cut, and applying it across the government is a pretty lazy way to manage outside experts" (Energywire, June 17).

Department of the Interior

The Interior Department has more than 100 discretionary and mandatory committees — from the Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force to the Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board.

An internal analysis by DOI in 2016 found that 47 of its advisory committees under FACA did not submit reports or recommendations to the agency. Six of those committees had never submitted recommendations. Another 41 advisory committees, some decades old, had submitted fewer than 20 recommendations.

Altogether, the agency estimates these advisory panels had led to $10 million in direct and indirect costs each year. Interior did not provide an estimate of the committees’ benefits.

"DOI looks forward to another opportunity to review our FACAs in concert with the entire Federal family to improve the utility of these advisory committees. We will work diligently to implement President Trump’s Executive Order on FACAs to eliminate wasteful spending and ensure these advisory committees benefit the American people," a spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

Twenty-nine of Interior’s panels are resource advisory councils, rooted in the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act. While Interior is lauding efforts to trim its committees, the agency under Trump has added new committees of its own.

Most prominently, former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke established the explicitly pro-hunting International Wildlife Conservation Council.

"The Council advises the Secretary on issues including anti-poaching programs, wildlife trafficking, and efforts to increase awareness of the conservation and economic benefits of United States citizens traveling to foreign nations to engage in hunting," Interior stated.

The 16-member panel includes representatives from the National Rifle Association, Safari Club International and similar organizations.

It has also triggered criticism from environmentalists and lawmakers, including the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.).

"This council is not actually intended to promote conservation," Grijalva and 38 House colleagues wrote in 2017. "Instead, it is intended to rationalize the behavior and advance the agenda of a miniscule subset of the uber-rich who find entertainment in killing rare wildlife."

The IWCC has met four times so far, with administrative and reimbursement costs estimated at $110,000 a year.

Zinke in 2018 also set up the Hunting and Shooting Sports Conservation Council, an 18-member committee with 10 alternates (Greenwire, March 4).

"Bringing these experts together will be key to ensuring the American tradition of hunting and shooting, as well as the conservation benefits of these practices, carries on," Zinke said at the time.

Neither of the pro-hunting committees was rooted in statute, nor were others such as the prominent National Park System Advisory Board. Still others, though, such as the Acadia National Park Advisory Commission, set up in 1986, were authorized by Congress.

Reporters Kelsey Brugger and Sean Reilly contributed.