Federal Agency Websites Altered

Published Jan 24, 2017

Scientific content has been changed on several agency websites in the early weeks of the Trump administration—and the alterations share some common themes.

What happened: The scientific content of several federal agency web pages has been altered by the Trump administration. Science and climate change-related pages appear to have been targeted for these changes.

Why it matters: While some changes to agency websites may be normal during a presidential transition, the focus so far on removing information about science and climate change is troubling. 

EPA climate change information and science office information removed

On January 24, EPA employees were reportedly instructed  by Trump administration officials to remove climate change information from the agency’s website. An anonymous EPA employee reported that communications staff were instructed by Trump administration officials to remove climate change portions of the agency’s website, but career employees pushed back against this. “Management was pushing back as far up the chain as we could get to say this was not an acceptable move and to delay it,” the employee said. Another anonymous EPA employee said, “The word that came down was ‘scrub’.” This employee also noted that orders were “clearly from the political people. …it came from the White House.” On January 25, the Trump administration seemed to walk back this decision to remove climate change information from the agency’s website, with one anonymous EPA employee stating, “We’ve been told to stand down.” Doug Eriksen, spokesperson for President Trump’s transition team at the EPA, said that webpages at the agency were being reviewed and could be altered. “We’re looking at scrubbing it up a bit, putting a little freshener on it, and getting it back up to the public. We’re taking a look at everything,” Eriksen said. While the climate change webpage would not be fully taken down, it was not clear if all climate change information could be prevented from removal. An anonymous EPA employee said that the Office of the General Counsel was “walking through pages on the site” to determine what could and could not be removed legally.  

The Environmental Data and Government Initiative (EDGI), a network of academics and non-profits who archive public environmental data, uncovered multiple alterations to EPA’s webpages starting in January, and published a report on these changes. Most notable was the removal of a paragraph asserting the U.S. commitment to tackle the issue of climate change as a partner of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change from EPA’s “International Collaboration” webpage. Additionally, EPA’s “Federal Partner Collaboration” page became the “EPA Adaptation Collaboration” page. This webpage’s text now emphasizes adaptation as a core research priority of the EPA, and removes language on climate change mitigation, resilience, and preparedness. Also, text related to several plans carried out by the Obama administration disappeared such as Obama’s Climate Action Plan, the National Action Plan, the National Ocean Policy Implementation Plan, and the National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy. Also removed were mentions of two task forces focused on climate change preparedness and resilience, and information and links to the Council on Environmental Quality, Indian Environmental General Assistance Program, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Environmental Policy Committee. Language changed on some webpages that deemphasized federal collaboration and focused more on EPA’s role in local efforts. With the website changes occurring between January 16 and 22, Eriksen claimed that these changes happened under the Obama administration saying, “We did not direct that.”

On March 7, more web alterations at the EPA were released by EDGI. The EPA’s Office of Science and Technology (OST) removed “science” in a paragraph describing the function of the office. Prior to January 30, the web page of OST, an office in charge of developing clean water standards, described the function of the office as “developing sound, science-based standards,” but since January 30, the description now says that OST “develops national economically and technologically achievable performance standards to address water pollution from industry.” Not all EPA webpages have been archived, but those that have can be reached here.    

State Department’s climate action reports disappear

During President Trump’s first week in office, many climate change reports housed on State Department webpages disappeared. Reports that detailed progress on President Obama’s Climate Action Plan were all removed from the State Department website. Specifically, reports published in 2010, 2014, and 2016 were removed. Additionally, reports detailing work from the U.S.-China Climate Change Working Group are no longer available. These reports are available through an archived version of the State Department’s webpages.

DOE web page on climate action plan removed

The DOE page about Obama’s Climate Action Plan was temporarily removed after Trump’s inauguration. The web page is available as of March 2017. However, if a user wishes to access the full PDF version of the Climate Action Plan, this can only be accessed through archived web pages. Archived DOE webpages can be accessed here.

Common themes emerge from website removals and alterations

One common thread that seems to join all of these science-related webpage removals and alterations is that they are mostly related to Obama-era policies, with the exception of “science” being removed from the OST web page. The Trump administration has been quick to disassociate itself from the Obama presidency, removing all Obama-era information from the White House website as soon as Trump was inaugurated.

Another common theme is a signal that international commitments made under Obama, particularly the UNFCCC Paris Climate Agreement, may not be continued by President Trump. This is not particularly surprising given that Trump said that he planned to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement during his campaign. However, as of March 2017 Trump’s senior advisers seem to have different views on whether or not the U.S. should pull out of the Paris Agreement.

Language framing climate change has switched from a focus on mitigation, preparedness, and resilience to adaptation. Additionally, the administration appears to be downplaying the fact that human-generated greenhouse gas emissions are the root cause of global climate change. “Highlighting adaptation is good for us in terms of food security, and even national security, but not coupled with a de-emphasis on our responsibility to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and do everything we can to mitigate the potential change,” said Gretchen Gehrke, member of EDGI and data quality manager at Public Lab.

Lastly, while it has not been a common theme yet under this administration, some have expressed concern that the removal of “science” from EPA’s OST web page could signal the development of policies that are not as strongly informed by science. Regarding the removal of this language, Gehrke said, “This is probably the most important thing we’ve found so far. The language changes here are not nuanced—they have really important regulatory implications.”

Gehrke expressed concern that the emphasis of OST’s “technologically achievable” standard may mean that the EPA will be moving away from regulating polluting industries via performance-based standards and toward regulating pollution based on what an industry can achieve through technology. However, some of EPA’s web pages, like the one dedicated to the emissions standards under the Clean Air Act, continue to emphasize performance-based standards over technology mandates as of March 2017.

Some web changes are normal in presidential transitions

During the transition to a new President, some website changes are expected. Past Presidents’ webpages are typically archived by the National Archives and Records Administration. Additionally, removing references to the previous president’s policies is not uncommon. Referring to the removals of Obama-era policies from EPA’s web pages under the Trump administration, an agency spokesperson said that “all changes were routine and in line with agency guidelines.” It is of note though that not all agency websites have been targeted to be altered or removed; rather, select pages have thus far been altered. This also was case when the Trump administration implemented gag orders, only imposing them on select agencies.