Decisionmaking Process at EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board has Become More Secretive

Published Mar 24, 2020

What happened: Most members of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) scientific advisory board (SAB) are now restricted from a certain decisionmaking process because of a memo issued by EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler. Specifically, Wheeler’s memo removes the voices of almost all SAB members from having a say in what proposed agency regulations warrant review and gives the chair of the SAB unprecedented power.

Why it matters: The EPA’s SAB provides important scientific advice to the EPA’s senior leadership by carrying out an exhaustive search of the scientific literature and by determining whether the specifics of proposed regulations align with the best available science. By diminishing the ability of SAB from deciding, as a whole and by consensus, which proposed rule needs a scientific review, the ability of science to inform proposed rules at the EPA could be compromised.

The independence of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) scientific advisory board (SAB) may be at stake with a policy put in place by EPA administrator Wheeler. The policy takes away the ability of the board to collaboratively decide which proposed rules require the board’s scientific expertise. A previously democratic and transparent decisionmaking process between the 44 SAB members is now being transformed into a much more secretive process. According to Wheeler’s memo, the decisionmaking process has changed to a closed-door, once-a-month briefing between the SAB chair, Dr. Michael Honeycutt, and EPA staff. After this meeting, the SAB chair has the sole power of deciding, within a 10 day period, “whether there are scientific aspects of the proposed rule that may merit SAB review.”

This change in policy gives the SAB chair unprecedented power, by changing the decisionmaking process from a consensus-building activity into a unilateral, secretive one. The current SAB chair, Dr. Michael Honeycutt, has previously carried out a number of actions prior to joining EPA’s SAB that puts his scientific judgment in question. Honeycutt previously cherrypicked studies that emphasized doubt in the science of air pollution, specifically undercutting the established scientific consensus that ozone pollution can led to adverse health effects. Industry representatives, including ExxonMobil, previously launched a campaign to place Honeycutt as a member of the EPA’s top air pollution advisory committee. Also, we’ve previously documented an attack on science that was caused by Honeycutt. After Hurricane Harvey ravaged Houston and damaged chemical facilities in a way that likely increased air pollution levels in certain areas, NASA scientists offered the world’s most sophisticated technology to measure those air pollution levels. However, Honeycutt, lead toxicologist at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, recommended that this NASA data collection not occur because it could cause “confusion;” the EPA followed his recommendation.

One high-ranking congressional representative has said that this policy action “appears to be a retaliatory reaction” for previous SAB decisions that were critical of proposed rules on the basis of science. For instance, the SAB previously described a proposed rule that decreases federal protections on wetlands and streams from pollution as something that “neglects established science.” Additionally, the SAB has been highly critical of a rule that will restrict the use of science in the EPA decisionmaking process, calling it a “license to politicize the scientific evaluation” process.

Wheeler’s memo upends years of a transparent practice by the board, of collaboratively deciding which proposed rules required their scientific expertise. Some SAB members fear that this change will compromise the independence of the board’s ability to assess the scientific merits of proposed EPA rules. Wheeler’s memo is dismantling a democratic process within SAB, which has a real possibility of diminishing the ability of science to inform policymaking. Considering that the EPA’s rules have major impacts on the health and safety of all Americans, the process of restricting science in the EPA’s decisionmaking process may prove especially hazardous to people’s health and well-being.