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Zinke’s controversial, EPA-style ‘secret science’ order isn’t going over well with Democrats

Experts worry national parks and endangered species could be heavily impacted by the proposal.

The Teton Range, a mountain range of the Rocky Mountains, is seen from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, United States on July 12, 2018. CREDIT: Patrick Gorski/NurPhoto via Getty Images
The Teton Range, a mountain range of the Rocky Mountains, is seen from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, United States on July 12, 2018. CREDIT: Patrick Gorski/NurPhoto via Getty Images

House Democrats are calling on Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to stand down from plans to rein in the use of confidential data when crafting agency policies, a controversial move that follows similar efforts to limit the use of science at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In a letter sent Thursday, House Natural Resources ranking member Raúl Grijalva and other representatives expressed “alarm” over a Sep. 28 “Promoting Open Science” order distributed to Interior Department staff. The order instructs staff to prioritize “publicly available, reproducible, peer-reviewed” science in their crafting of policy and decision-making.

In addition to Grijalva, the letter was signed by Democratic Reps. Jared Huffman (CA), Donald McEachin (VA), and Niki Tsongas (MA). They warned that what sounds like an effort for more transparency will actually limit the type of science used in decision-making.

These limitations could endanger ecosystems and sacred Native American spaces. Thursday’s letter notes that polar bear habitat protections and safeguards against drilling in the Arctic are among the areas that could be impacted by the rule.

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Rather than helping ensure “the best available science” is used in policymaking, Grijalva and his co-signers say, approaches like the one taken by the Interior Department will only favor partisan interests.

The Democrats go on to note that the Trump administration has rolled back numerous environmental regulations and that the Interior Department itself has seemingly prioritized fossil fuel industry interests under Zinke.

“We are skeptical that this waiver provision is anything but another layer of protection for the fossil-fuel industry at the expense of scientific integrity,” the letter emphasizes, concluding by calling on Zinke to rescind the order.

Zinke’s “open science” order appears to be following the EPA’s lead. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), a long-time denier of climate change, has used his position as House Science, Space, and Technology chairman to encourage so-called “secret science” orders without much success or support from his peers. Under former administrator Scott Pruitt, however, the EPA embraced such ideas and the agency has pushed ahead with efforts to implement limitations on science.

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These types of policies would require decision-makers to rely only on scientific studies where the underlying data used by the researchers is made public.

A lot of data if released, however, would violate patient privacy or industry confidentiality. In many instances, it could open up scientists to attacks from individuals or industries looking to distort the data. The impact would also be to impose a dramatic burden on government officials compiling the data, effectively limiting their ability to introduce new protections for health and the environment.

Scientists and environmentalists have expressed concern that public lands and endangered species could be compromised by such limitations. A significant amount of long-established environmental research is sourced from private and confidential data, something that is largely true of scientific research more broadly.

But the Trump administration has indicated an interest in restricting the use of private data, a move that experts largely agree would hinder science — it would potentially rule out the use of valuable personal or sensitive information typically made anonymous upon publication for privacy concerns.

At the EPA under Pruitt, the agency in April proposed a “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” rule that would have a similar impact to the one proposed at the Interior Department. While the Interior order allows more leeway and gives staff the opportunity to use science at their own discretion so long as they can explain their reasoning, Democrats nonetheless took aim at the similarities in their letter.

“Both policies threaten the suppression of scientific information not aligned with this administration’s agenda under the auspices of improving science-based decision-making,” the letter reads.

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Heather Swift, an Interior agency spokesperson, defended the move to BuzzFeed News in October as an effort to combat criticisms of the department’s opaque decision-making process and accusations about “cherry picking” science.

The Interior Department has been shown to have scrubbed mentions of climate change from a number of websites and scientists say they are increasingly facing censorship and suspicion.

“The goal is for the Department to play with its cards face-up, so that the American people can see how the Department is analyzing important public policy issues and be confident that it is using the best information available to inform its decisions,” Swift told the publication.

But Thursday’s letter argues that even outside of the new open science order, the agency seems to be actively undermining science. The letter highlights the secretary’s own conflict-laden requirements of those submitting research proposals, which are reportedly undermining the role of science in the agency.

“DOI policy also now requires the review of all cooperative agreements and grants over $50,000 by a political appointee with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a long-standing friendship with you, but no apparent qualifications to review scientific grants,” the letter notes, referencing a report that research proposals are being reviewed by Steve Howke, senior adviser to the Interior’s acting assistant secretary of policy, management, and budget, Scott Cameron.

Howke is a close personal friend of Zinke’s and, among other things, the pair played high school football together. Climate scientists say that Howke is holding up their research funding, which pertains to pressing topics like the role of global warming in fueling natural disasters.

Experts have largely decried so-called “secret science” efforts for years but until recently they were largely without weight. That appears to have changed at both the EPA and Interior Department, likely thanks to the influence of lawmakers like Smith.

The EPA left out its own scientists in its crafting of its own order; it is unclear what role experts at the Interior Department may have played in the agency’s version. The order still needs to undergo a public comment period before it becomes an official rule.