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What the hell is going on at the EPA right now?

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It’s safe to say there’s an enormous amount of panic — and confusion — about what’s going on with the Trump administration and the Environmental Protection Agency right now.

Over the past few days, we’ve seen reports that Trump’s team ordered EPA employees not to speak to the press or use social media for a period of time. They’ve imposed a (temporary) freeze on new grants and contracts. Trump’s political appointees even reportedly asked the EPA to remove parts of the agency’s climate change website — before receiving pushback from career staffers and then clarifying publicly that they merely planned on “scrubbing [the website] up a bit, putting a little freshener on it.” Within the agency, morale among career staff is low.

Now, on one level, the initial media furor around these stories has been a bit overblown. It’s really not that unusual for a new president to come in and put agency actions on hold temporarily while political appointees get a feel for their departments — and figure out how to align agency actions and messaging with the administration’s policy priorities. There’s a totally benign interpretation of many of these moves.

Indeed, Trump’s spokespeople have clarified that many of these EPA “blackouts” are likely to be short-lived — both the freeze on grants and the political review of outgoing scientific press releases are expected to be lifted by Friday, January 27.

Some of the disarray here may stem from the fact that Trump’s transition team got a later start and moved more slowly than Bush’s or Obama’s did. In previous transitions, for instance, an incoming administration would’ve reviewed EPA grants and contracts before the inauguration — so there wasn’t a need to suddenly freeze new grants on week one, explains Scott Fulton, who was the EPA’s general counsel during the Obama administration and is now president of the Environmental Law Institute.

But on another level, even if some of the early outrage has been overheated, it’s hardly a mystery why there’s a lot of dread and uncertainty about the EPA right now. You just have to look at what happened at the agency during the George W. Bush years — and also at what Trump’s team have explicitly said they want to do. The widespread fear that we might soon see a Trump “war on science” at the agency is hardly unfounded.

If the Bush years are any indication, there’s a lot to worry about with Trump’s EPA

Bush Establishes Marianas Trench Marine National Monument
Remember this guy?
Photo Joshua Roberts-Pool/Getty Images

The EPA is required, by law, to enforce and continually update air, water, and climate pollution regulations in accordance with the best available science. To that end, the agency employs a variety of scientists who sort through and synthesize the relevant research in order to inform this process.

Different administrations obviously have different ideas about what those regulations should look like — and the law gives the EPA a certain amount of leeway there. But what made the George W. Bush administration so striking is that it often attacked the underlying science itself, either by muzzling scientists or by ignoring or suppressing the relevant research.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has a long, long list of examples here. In 2003, the administration suppressed an EPA analysis showing that a Senate air pollution bill would save more lives than a bill that Bush favored. In 2005, an EPA report showing the fuel efficiency of US cars had declined was also suppressed until after Congress voted on an energy bill. In 2006, an EPA scientist was barred from participating in a conference on soil science, because the talk might have touched on climate change. The list goes on and on — and the pattern was repeated across other federal agencies.

Perhaps the most consequential example came in 2008, as the EPA was crafting new regulations for ground-level ozone pollution, or smog, as required by the Clean Air Act. Scientists at the EPA had reviewed some 1,700 papers on the effects of ozone and recommended that the standards be tightened — only to have the White House overrule their findings and set a weaker standard. (That rule was eventually redone by the Obama administration, which set stricter ozone standards.)

The Obama administration came in vowing to protect EPA’s scientists and improve transparency, and it hasn’t exactly been perfect on this score — it has, for instance, still been difficult for reporters to speak to EPA scientists over the past eight years. But the Bush era was in another category altogether.

That sort of thing is what EPA scientists and career staff are concerned about as the Trump administration gets underway. Sure, it may be normal and mostly harmless that Trump’s political appointees are reviewing all outgoing press scientific releases this week. But there’s a larger context to consider too. And Trump has given agency employees every reason to worry — if they want to quell those fears, his political appointees have a lot of work to do.

Trump’s advisers have already hinted they’ll go after EPA’s scientists

Donald Trump Addresses Republican Retreat In Philadelphia
Not a fan of this climate change stuff.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Trump administration has made its plan for the EPA perfectly clear — it wants to roll back a wide variety of Obama-era climate rules and cut the agency’s budget considerably. Trump has been very explicit about easing the regulatory burden on coal-fired power plants and oil and gas producers. That’s a top priority.

Now, if that were all there was to it, you might say, okay, those are mainly policy issues. You can agree or disagree, but Trump is president, and he has some latitude to reorient the agency (as long as the EPA follows the laws that underpin the agency, like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act).

But Trump’s team hasn’t just talked about making regulatory changes through the usual federal rulemaking channels. They’ve also talked about going after EPA’s scientists and scientific process. Jonathan Swan and Mike Allen of Axios got a look at an “agency action plan” for the EPA written by Trump’s transition team. It has a section called “Addendum on the problems with EPA science” that includes this striking paragraph:

EPA does not use science to guide regulatory policy as much as it uses regulatory policy to steer the science. This is an old problem at EPA. In 1992, a blue-ribbon panel of EPA science advisers that [sic] 'science should not be adjusted to fit policy.' But rather than heed this advice, EPA has greatly increased its science manipulation.

The document follows up with recommendations that the EPA stop funding science altogether and that “EPA's science advisory process needs to be overhauled to eliminate conflicts of interest and inherent bias.”

Now combine that with the Trump team’s well-known (and scientifically unfounded) hostility toward climate change research. You have the president himself saying global warming is “bullshit.” You have Trump’s pick to head the EPA, Scott Pruitt, refusing to say that human activity is the main cause of global warming (the evidence is overwhelming that it is). You have a Trump transition team official like Chris Horner, who has spent years hounding climate scientists and accusing them of manipulating data. When you put this together, it’s not hard to see why people are fearful that Trump’s team might come in and distort the scientific process.

In theory, the EPA should have new safeguards to protect its scientists from undue Bush-style political interference. The agency’s “scientific integrity policy,” enacted in 2012, notes that it is “essential that political or other officials not suppress or alter scientific findings.” The agency now has a “Scientific Integrity Official,” a career position, to enforce this policy, working with the EPA’s inspector general. Still, these integrity guidelines weren’t written into law by Congress — and outsiders fear that they may not be robust enough to withstand a White House intent on heavy interference.

It’s hard to know exactly how the Trump era at the EPA will play out, although Michael Halpern, the deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, suggests watching what happens at EPA’s scientific advisory boards. These advisory boards are supposed to independently synthesize scientific research that is then used by policymakers to inform the shape of regulations. What happens to them under Trump?

Those sorts of decisions will be quieter and garner far less press attention than a website edit or a temporary grant freeze (unless career employees decide to leak what’s happening to the press). But they could end up being far, far more important. So pace yourself, everyone. It’s week one, there are still four years to go, and we haven’t even begun to see what will happen to the EPA under Trump.

Further reading:

Trump is preparing to make massive policy changes at the EPA. Here are many of the obstacles he’ll face.

Watch: A history of US inaction on climate change

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