EPA panel clears Pruitt’s climate denial by misquoting scientific integrity policy

"Pruitt is in violation of basic standards of ethical conduct," says leading climatologist Michael Mann.

President Donald Trump and EPA Chief Scott Pruitt. CREDIT: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
President Donald Trump and EPA Chief Scott Pruitt. CREDIT: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

A review panel for the EPA’s Scientific Integrity Policy said Tuesday it has cleared Administrator Scott Pruitt for spreading climate misinformation on a television news program earlier this summer.

But reaching exoneration required the panel to cherry-pick an irrelevant part of the agency’s Scientific Integrity Policy, while ignoring the injunction to managers to accurately represent EPA findings to the public.

Here’s what Pruitt — and the scientific integrity panel — got wrong.

Back in March, Pruitt went on CNBC and asserted that CO2 is not “a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.” This was in direct contradiction to both well-established science, as Politifact noted, and EPA’s own website (at the time), which explained at length why “carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas that is contributing to recent climate change.”

Pruitt’s statement is so anti-science that when he repeated it on Fox News Sunday, even anchor Chris Wallace called him out on his denial. “Mr. Pruitt, there are all kinds of studies that contradict you.”

After the CNBC appearance, the Sierra Club submitted a complaint to EPA’s Office of Inspector General, accusing Pruitt of violating the agency’s Scientific Integrity Policy.

The Sierra Club noted that the policy statement asserts principles that Pruitt clearly violated:

When dealing with science, it is the responsibility of every EPA employee to conduct, utilize, and communicate science with honesty, integrity, and transparency, both within and outside the Agency. To operate an effective science and regulatory agency like the EPA, it is also essential that political or other officials not suppress or alter scientific findings

The Sierra Club complaint was ultimately referred to the EPA Scientific Integrity Committee, which created a review panel to examine it. The panel has now responded to Sierra with a letter by Thomas Sinks, director of EPA’s Office of the Science Advisor.

The letter, obtained by the Washington Free Beacon, builds its defense of Pruitt around this partial — and frankly irrelevant — quote:

But here is the full quote from the policy — with the panel omission in italics.

When an Agency employee substantively engaged in the science informing an Agency policy decision disagrees with the scientific data, scientific interpretations, or scientific conclusions that will be relied upon for said Agency decision, the employee is encouraged to express that opinion, complete with rationale, preferably in writing. It is expected that any differing scientific opinions will be resolved during internal deliberations and if not, will be addressed during scientific peer review.

The panel was cherry-picking a quote from a section of its policy related to resolving internal disagreements. That section is titled “Promoting a Culture of Scientific Integrity at the EPA,” and this particular part covers how “to assure the protection of agency scientists.”

It is tortuous for the panel to claim that a part of the policy that is clearly written to protect agency scientists internally — that applies to “an agency employee substantively engaged in the science” — is instead meant to apply to the administrator when he speaks publicly on behalf of the agency.

This incomplete representation is particularly egregious because a few lines later, the policy covers Part B: “Release of Scientific Information to the Public.”

Here is what “scientists and managers” are expected to do when communicating publicly:

Freely exercise their right to express their personal views provided they specify that they are not speaking on behalf of, or as a representative of, the Agency but rather in their private capacity. Scientists and managers must clearly identify that the information represents their views and not necessarily those of the EPA and use the following disclaimer language when presenting scientific information on matters that do not reflect their official Agency scientific activities and direct responsibilities: “The views expressed in this [article/chapter/paper/speech] are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.”

Pruitt appears to have violated that part of the policy. He was clearly identified at the start of the CNBC interview as a representative of the EPA — its chief (see full video here).

If an EPA scientist or manager disagrees with an EPA finding externally, the policy makes clear they have to state that these are personal views and not necessarily the views of the EPA. That’s the part Pruitt violated. When Sinks asserts, in the letter to the Sierra Club, that “the freedom to express one’s opinion about science is fundamental to EPA’s Scientific Integrity Policy even (and especially) when that point of view might be controversial,” he is referring to a policy that is designed to protect agency scientists when dealing with internal disagreements.

Sinks’ response draws into question the integrity of the Scientific Integrity Committee itself.

But it’s worth thinking about Pruitt’s entire tenure as EPA head to put this in context. As leading climate scientist Michael Mann told ThinkProgress when asked about this incident, “I’m not an expert on the law, but it’s clear to me that Pruitt is in violation of basic standards of ethical conduct, as he seeks to advance the agenda of the Koch Brothers and polluting interests over the interest of the people he is supposed to be representing as head of the EPA.”