The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) appears to have put a deeply controversial plan limiting the use of scientific data in policymaking on hold for the time being. The move follows significant outcry from experts and the agency’s own staff.
A rule entitled “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” has seemingly been pushed down the road, according to the Trump administration’s fall regulatory agenda, which was released Wednesday. An update to the rule’s status indicates that it is now in a “long-term” agenda stage, one that will see any final announcement pushed back at least a year.
EPA spokesperson Michael Abboud confirmed that timeline on Wednesday morning, stating that no action on the rule will occur for at least 12 months. Abboud later said that the rule was not being delayed but that “the Agency is continuing its internal rulemaking development process” and that the original spring agenda “gave no deadline on a final rule.”
Bloomberg reported that the new timeline could see the rule, initially introduced April 30, 2018, languishing for around two years.
Controversy has plagued the rule, introduced under the leadership of former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt. The proposal seeks to weed out so-called “secret science,” carrying out a crusade long championed by conservative Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), a climate science denier who has fought for years to reign in the use of confidential data used when crafting policy at agencies like the EPA.
On its face, that push for transparency might resonate with some — but experts have repeatedly emphasized that confidential data is private for a reason. Making it public could violate patient privacy or industry confidentiality, in many instances breaking the law and potentially allowing for distortions of the information. Limiting the data government officials can use, meanwhile, could hinder efforts to protect both human health and the environment.
But Smith found an ally in Pruitt, who pushed forward the EPA proposal over the advice of many members of his own staff and without the input of the agency’s scientists.
The EPA says it has received almost 600,000 public comments on the proposal after environmental and health professionals lobbied hard against it. A July hearing on the rule saw emotionally-charged testimony from more than 100 speakers, including scientists, lawmakers, doctors, and organizations representing farmworkers and other laborers, all of whom said the rule would have deadly repercussions and would “censor science.”
Opponents of the rule, however, refrained from celebrating Wednesday but instead hailed the longer timeline as a relief.
“The current political leadership still wants to move forward with Pruitt’s agenda to sideline science, just at a slower pace,” said Yogin Kothari, who works with the Union of Concerned Scientists, indicating that the non-profit believes acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler will still pursue enshrining the rule. “It’s clear the agency’s political leadership still wants to ignore the best available science when it comes to protecting public health and the environment.”
As the EPA rule slows down, efforts to limit the use of science are alive and well at the Interior Department. House Democrats called last week for Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to back down from the agency’s own secret science proposal, which directs staff to prioritize “publicly available, reproducible, peer-reviewed” science. Experts worry the move could be perilous for national parks, endangered species, and sacred Native American spaces.