Climate deniers and tobacco flacks headline the EPA’s new science standard announcement

Scott Pruitt's ceremony on science transparency featured lots of climate deniers but no media.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt testifies during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on Capitol Hill January 18, 2017 in Washington, DC. (CREDIT: Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt testifies during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on Capitol Hill January 18, 2017 in Washington, DC. (CREDIT: Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

On Tuesday afternoon, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt signed a proposed rule limiting the kinds of science that the agency can use in its rulemaking, a step that he described as bringing transparency and trust back to the agency’s scientific process.

If the event was billed as being about transparency in science, however, the audience told a different story. Before Pruitt took the podium, prominent climate deniers like William Happer, who has compared climate science to a cult, and Myron Ebell, who has championed the supposed benefits of higher carbon dioxide for the planet, rubbed elbows with lawmakers like Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), one of Congress’ most vocal critics of the EPA.

Conspicuously missing from the event on scientific transparency, however, was the media — which was reportedly not invited to cover the event.


The event, which lasted for fifteen minutes, featured speeches from Smith and Senator Mike Rounds (R-SD), both of whom sponsored bills in the legislature aimed at limiting the types of science that the EPA can rely on for rulemaking. Both lawmakers decried the agency’s use of non-publicly available data for issuing regulations, arguing that it eroded public trust.

Pruitt, when he spoke, took a similar tack, telling the audience that the proposed rule signaled “an agency taking responsibility for how we do our work, in respecting process … so that we can enhance confidence in our decision making.”

The text of the proposed rule has not been released, nor did Pruitt answer any questions during the event. But descriptions of the rule given to conservative media outlets over the past few weeks paint the picture of a proposed rule that mirrors Smith’s HONEST Act, which passed in the House earlier this year.

That bill required that all data used by the EPA for rulemaking purposes be both publicly available and replicable — requirements that critics argue would severely hinder the kinds of studies that the agency can use. Long-term public health studies, for instance, often rely on non-public data due to patient privacy concerns — and long-term studies might also not be immediately replicable.

In advance of Tuesday’s announcement, more than 900 scientists sent Pruitt a letter asking him to reconsider his decision to limit the kind of science that can be used by the agency.


“There are ways to improve transparency in the decision making process, but restricting the use of science would improve neither transparency nor the quality of EPA decision making,” the letter read. “If fully implemented, this proposal would greatly weaken EPA’s ability to comprehensively consider the scientific evidence across the full array of health effects studies.”

The proposal was also publicly opposed by 50 science organizations and universities, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society, the American Lung Association, and the National Council for Science and the Environment.

No mainstream scientific organizations supported the changes, though the proposed rule has gained support from climate science deniers and scientists with ties to the tobacco industry.

“Demanding the end of reliance on secret science may be the most consequential decision made by EPA since the election of Donald Trump,” Joseph Bast, director and senior fellow at the Heartland Institute, said in a press statement. “This day vindicates the efforts of some real heroes in the public health debate — Dr. Robert Phalen, Dr. James Enstrom, Dr. John Dunn, M.D., and Steve Milloy.”

The Heartland Institute has a long history of climate denial, and spent years working to defend the tobacco industry against allegations that its products were harmful to human health. All of the “heroes in the public health debate” that Bast cites have defended either air pollution or tobacco — and some have spent years defending both.


Robert Phalen, a pollution researcher named to the EPA’s Science Advisory Board in late October, has argued that “modern air is a little too clean for optimum health.”

James Enstrom, who worked for 35-years as a non-tenured researcher in the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, has published research defending the impact of both tobacco smoke and diesel emissions on public health.

John Dunn, a practicing physician who also serves as a policy adviser at the Heartland Institute, has questioned both the public health benefits of smoking bans and the dangers of climate change and heat waves on human health.

And Steve Milloy is a former tobacco industry consultant who has spent years arguing that links between particulate matter and adverse health impacts are not justified.