The House of Representatives voted Wednesday to significantly limit the science that the Environmental Protection Agency can use when creating regulations, leaving some critics concerned that the agency will not be able to issue important safeguards on public health and the environment.
Known as the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act, or HONEST Act, the bill would prohibit the EPA from using any data that is not publicly available, would require all scientific studies to be replicable, and would allow anyone who signs a confidentiality agreement to view redacted personal data or trade information. The bill passed 228–194, largely along party lines — only three Democrats voted for the bill, and only seven Republicans voted against it. Still, those totals represent a small shift — the last time the House voted on a similar bill, only one Republican voted against it, while four Democrats voted for it.
The bill was sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science Committee and noted critic of the EPA under President Obama. Smith defended the bill on the House floor by arguing that “if policies are not based on legitimate science, regulations will result in economic hardship with little or no environmental benefit.”
But critics argue the bill would severely limit the kind of science the EPA could use in justifying regulations and would place a number of unnecessary burdens on EPA scientists. Public health studies that use confidential information protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), for instance, could not be used by EPA scientists because personal health data is protected and not publicly available — even when studies using that data have gone through a peer-review process and been published.
The requirement that studies be replicable might also present an unnecessary burden, as many long-term studies are not immediately replicable.
More than one Democratic representative described the bill as “Orwellian,” arguing that the legislation essentially functions as a gag-order on the EPA under the guise of transparency.
This is Orwellian: House votes on “HONEST Act” today. This bill actually makes it harder for EPA to use peer-reviewed studies #DefendScience
— Rep. Barbara Lee (@RepBarbaraLee) March 29, 2017
“This Orwellian bill is clearly designed to suppress certain scientific research that has been central for environmental health and regulations,” Rep. Elizabeth Etsy (D-CT), said on the House floor. “In my state of Connecticut, we rely on those regulations to deal with the asthma crisis we have, based on power plants in other parts of the country blowing polluted air into my state.”
This is not the first time the House of Representatives has voted to limit the EPA’s ability to use science in justifying regulations. In 2014 and 2015, the House passed versions of the Secret Science Reform Act, which, like the HONEST Act, sought to limit the data that EPA can use. At that time, President Obama said he would veto any such legislation that came across his desk. But the Trump administration has positioned itself as much friendlier to industry — appointing Scott Pruitt to lead the EPA, for instance — and has often railed against regulations from the EPA.
Earlier Wednesday, the House Science Committee — which is chaired by HONEST Act author Smith — conducted a hearing on climate science, which featured as witnesses three prominent climate deniers and one climate scientist who accepts the mainstream consensus on climate change. In recent years, Smith has used the Science Committee as a body for investigating climate scientists, holding hearings aimed at exposing what he views as collusion between climate scientists and environmental advocacy groups. Smith also led the charge last year to subpoena climate advocacy groups and scientists in an effort to derail investigations into ExxonMobil’s possible climate fraud.
In one especially notable exchange from the hearing on Wednesday, Smith challenged the reputation of Science magazine, which is published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)— the world’s largest general scientific society.
“That is not known as an objective writer or magazine,” Smith responded when Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann cited an article published last week by the magazine detailing Smith’s attacks on climate science and history of climate denial.
Smith, for his part, is a frequent contributor to the alt-right news site Breitbart, which regularly publishes debunked or misleading analysis of climate science. The House Science Committee twitter account, under Smith’s tenure as chairman, also has tweeted debunked climate science from sites like Breitbart and the Daily Mail.