EPA Head Pruitt Questions Scientific Finding Underpinning Greenhouse Gas Regulations

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Publication date: 
20 December 2017

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt recently argued that the agency used a flawed process in 2009 when it determined that greenhouse gas emissions endanger the public. He also said he still hopes to scrutinize the underlying climate science through a “red team/blue team” review.

At a Dec. 7 House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt said he believes the agency used a flawed process when developing its 2009 determination that greenhouse gas emissions pose a risk to public health and welfare.

Pruitt did not indicate whether he plans to revisit the decision, known as the “endangerment finding.” However, he did say he still hopes to carry out a “red team/blue team” exercise to scrutinize climate science, which he argued would improve public confidence in the agency’s decisions. Some proponents of the exercise argue it could be a key step toward rescinding the endangerment finding.


EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt addressing agency employees.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt addressing agency employees.

(Image credit - EPA)

EPA committed ‘breach of process,’ Pruitt claims

When Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) asked whether he plans to revisit the endangerment finding, Pruitt did not respond directly but described the process used to develop it as “short-shrifted,” saying there had been a “breach of process.” In particular, he criticized EPA’s use of assessments produced by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC):

In fact, there was something done in 2009 that, in my estimation, has never been done since and not done before that event, where they took work from the U.N. IPCC and transported it to the agency and adopted that as the core of the finding.

To support the endangerment finding, EPA also relied other peer-reviewed consensus reports on climate change science and impacts, including ones produced through the U.S. Global Research Program (USGCRP) and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

In the technical support document accompanying the finding, EPA argued that relying on these organizations is justified because their assessments “provide EPA with assurances that this material has been well vetted by both the climate change research community and by the U.S. government.” Furthermore, EPA stated that using these analyses “complies with EPA’s information quality guidelines, as this document relies on information that is objective, technically sound and vetted, and of high integrity.”

In a 2012 decision, a federal appeals court supported EPA’s use of the documents, writing:

EPA did not delegate, explicitly or otherwise, any decision-making to [IPCC, USGCRP, or NAS]. EPA simply did here what it and other decision-makers often must do to make a science-based judgement: it sought out and reviewed existing scientific evidence to determine whether a particular finding was warranted. … Moreover, it appears from the record that EPA used the assessment reports not as substitutes for its own judgement but as evidence upon which it relied to make that judgement.

The court concluded that the scientific evidence EPA relied upon was “substantial” and upheld the finding, and the Supreme Court denied a petition to appeal the decision in 2013.

Under the Clean Air Act, the endangerment finding gives EPA the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions as air pollutants. Accordingly, the finding is key to the justification for the Clean Power Plan (CPP), a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s regulatory efforts to reduce the nation’s carbon footprint.

The Trump administration’s EPA has proposed to repeal and replace the CPP on the grounds that the Obama administration overstepped its legal authority, although those proposals do not address the endangerment finding.

Pruitt ties red team/blue team rationale to endangerment finding

Since summer, a number of members of the Trump administration, including Pruitt, have been championing the idea of a red team/blue team exercise, which would pit viewpoints at odds with the scientific consensus on climate change against proponents of that consensus. President Trump himself reportedly supports the concept.

Asked at the hearing whether he plans to implement the idea, Pruitt said it has been subject to “ongoing review internally” and that it is “something that I hope to be able to do and announce sometime [at the] beginning part of next year at the latest.” In elaborating on his rationale for the exercise, Pruitt referenced the endangerment finding process, saying,

I think one of the most important things we can do for the American people is provide that type of discussion, because it hasn't happened at the agency. As I indicated, the agency borrowed the work product of a third party, and we need to ensure that that discussion occurs, and that it occurs in a way that the American people know that objective, transparent review is taking place.

In an influential op-ed article published in April, physicist Steve Koonin advocated the exercise as a way to “produce a traceable public record that would allow the public and decision makers [to gain] a better understanding of certainties and uncertainties,” arguing that the process is more rigorous and transparent than peer review. Others, though, have defended the rigor of the traditional peer review processes for climate science and have questioned the wisdom of reopening debates that those processes have closed.

After the hearing, E&E News reported that some within the White House are reluctant to move forward with the exercise and that plans for one currently are “on hold.”

Democratic leaders accuse Pruitt of ignoring and undermining science

While Republican committee leaders expressed support at the hearing for Pruitt’s “back-to-basics” initiative to narrow the focus of EPA regulation, Democratic leaders were sharply critical, saying he has diminished the role of science at the agency.

In his opening statement, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), the top Democrat on the committee, accused Pruitt of waging a “war on science.” Pallone referred to Pruitt’s barring of current EPA grant recipients from serving on the agency’s science advisory panels as an “unprecedented assault on independent science. He also asserted that Pruitt has “ignored the advice and conclusions of his own scientific staff on numerous occasions.”

Similarly, Environment Subcommittee Ranking Member Paul Tonko (D-NY) voiced concerns that Pruitt is sidelining science, citing “capricious” regulatory rollbacks and his changes to the science advisory panels. Tonko referenced a letter sent to the committee by the American Geophysical Union, which says it is troubled by “the assertion that the independence, transparency, and objectivity of the scientists who receive federal grants is compromised.” Tonko asked whether “it makes sense to ignore the advice of the very scientists that EPA determines are worthiest of grant funding.”

Pruitt disagreed with the characterization that he is ignoring these scientists, noting they had the option of choosing between serving on the board or receiving grant money. Pruitt also sought to allay Tonko’s concerns about the state of scientific integrity at the agency, saying, “It is a matter of priority to make sure that we have scientific review of rules at the agency that are objective, transparent, and peer-reviewed.”