EPA Science Under Scrutiny by Trump Political Staff

January 25, 2017 Updated: January 26, 2017

WASHINGTON—The Trump administration is scrutinizing studies or data published by scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency, and new work is under a “temporary hold” before it can be released.

The communications director for President Donald Trump’s transition team at EPA, Doug Ericksen, said Wednesday the review extends to all existing content on the federal agency’s website, including details of scientific evidence showing that the Earth’s climate is warming and man-made carbon emissions are to blame.

Ericksen clarified his earlier statements to The Associated Press, which reported that the Trump administration was mandating that any studies or data from EPA scientists undergo review by political appointees before they can be released to the public. He said he was speaking about existing scientific information on the EPA website that is under review by members of the Trump administration’s transition team.

He said new work by the agency’s scientists is subject to the same “temporary hold” as other kinds of public releases, which he said would likely be lifted by Friday. He said there was no mandate to subject studies or data to political review.

Ericksen said no decisions have yet been made about whether to strip mentions of climate change from epa.gov.

screenshot (Whitehouse.org)
screenshot (Whitehouse.org)

“We’re taking a look at everything on a case-by-case basis, including the web page and whether climate stuff will be taken down,” Erickson said in an earlier interview with the AP. “Obviously with a new administration coming in, the transition time, we’ll be taking a look at the web pages and the Facebook pages and everything else involved here at EPA.”

Asked specifically about scientific data being collected by agency scientists, such as routine monitoring of air and water pollution, Ericksen responded, “Everything is subject to review.”

Trump press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters the communications clampdown at EPA wasn’t directed by the White House.

Oklahoma Attorney General and President-elect Donald Trump's nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, meets with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), on Capitol Hill Jan. 6, 2017 in Washington, DC.  (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Oklahoma Attorney General and President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, meets with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), on Capitol Hill Jan. 6, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Trump’s nominee for EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, said during his Senate confirmation hearing last week that he disagreed with past statements by the president alleging that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to harm U.S. economic competitiveness. But like Trump, Pruitt has a long history of publicly questioning the validity of climate science.

William K. Reilly, who was EPA administrator under Republican President George H.W. Bush, said what seems to be happening with science at the agency is “going down a very dark road.”

The EPA’s 14-page scientific integrity document, enacted during the Obama administration, describes how scientific studies were to be conducted and reviewed in the agency. It said scientific studies should eventually be communicated to the public, the media and Congress “uncompromised by political or other interference.”

The scientific integrity document expressly “prohibits managers and other Agency leadership from intimidating or coercing scientists to alter scientific data, findings or professional opinions or inappropriately influencing scientific advisory boards.” It provides ways for employees who know the science to disagree with scientific reports and policies and offers them some whistleblower protection.

George Gray, the assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Research and Development during the Republican administration of President George W. Bush, said scientific studies were reviewed usually at lower levels and even when they were reviewed at higher levels, it was to give officials notice about the studies—not for editing of content.

“Scientific studies would be reviewed at the level of a branch or a division or laboratory,” said Gray, now professor of public health at George Washington University. “Occasionally things that were known to be controversial would come up to me as assistant administrator and I was a political appointee. Nothing in my experience would go further than that.”

The AP and other media outlets reported earlier this week that emails sent internally to EPA staff mandated a temporary blackout on media releases and social media activity, as well as a freeze on contract approvals and grant awards.

Ericksen said Tuesday that the agency was preparing to greenlight nearly all of the $3.9 billion in pending contracts that were under review. Ericksen said he could not immediately provide details about roughly $100 million in distributions that will remain frozen.