Scott Pruitt's 'transparent' attack on science at the EPA

Our view: EPA’s proposed transparency rule is a potentially ruinous effort to hamstring the regulatory process, not improve the quality of research

The Trump administration’s war on science continues this week with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s “transparency” rule unveiled Tuesday afternoon that would limit the agency’s ability to use scientific studies to justify regulations if the data is not publicly available. It’s a clever dodge. Instead of engaging in a legitimate debate about the integrity of any particular study, Mr. Pruitt uses the blanket standard of transparency — which certainly sounds good — to neuter research that he finds inconvenient.

Why not rely exclusively on research that uses public records that anyone could double-check themselves? For some studies, that’s fine, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency often ventures into areas of public health where patient records are a vital resource. Such data is, by federal law, protected from public scrutiny. That doesn’t make it unreliable. Indeed, medical records can be a uniquely valuable tool when judging the health effects of pollution. But the rule is likely to mean some older but important studies will have to be ignored while all may face the added cost of redacting data sets so that personally identifying information can’t be gleaned by outsiders.

Conservatives have been pushing for this change for years because inconveniencing the regulatory process, whether scientifically justified or not, has long been their goal. Thus, if it raises the cost of research for no especially good reason or makes some studies impractical to be used by the agency, that’s all well and good since the end effect is to make it more difficult for the government to impose new rules. EPA regulations protecting the quality of drinking water, for example, or reducing the amount of harmful particulate matter in the air save lives, reduce hospitalizations and increase productivity, but that has always seemed unimportant to such short-sighted individuals who hear only the cries of polluters, not those of, say, the poisoned residents of Flint, Mich.

If all this beguiling “transparency” talk sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Congress took up the very same issue last year in the “Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act of 2017” or HONEST, get it? It actually passed the House on a highly partisan vote (as versions have been approved twice before) but went nowhere in the Senate. Mr. Pruitt’s proposal essentially seeks to replicate that failed measure by altering the EPA’s own rules in what he blithely described Tuesday as a “banner day” for the agency.

It represents the kind of logic that is so prominent on the dopier venues of AM talk radio: How can we possibly trust scientists who are motivated to find pollution in order to secure funding for additional studies? The answer: By relying on peer-review, advisory panels and other checks and balances that are already in place. But that seems not to satisfy people who have little understanding of what peer review involves. What does hit home for skeptics is the notion that “elites” are acting in “secret” to manipulate government for their own purposes. In the age of President Donald Trump, distrusting individuals with terminal degrees (campus elites) and public employees (government elites) is not exactly a tough sell.

In recent weeks, Mr. Pruitt has faced considerable scrutiny for his personal foibles — his renting a room from an energy lobbyist for $50 a night, his $43,000 soundproof phone booth, the pay raises handed out to aides and his costly, and cushy, travel and security spending. He’ll likely get some serious grilling on Capitol Hill on Thursday when he goes to defend his budget. But as embarrassing, unethical and wasteful as those various indulgences may be, they don’t necessarily represent the lasting damage that ignoring science could mean for public health and safety. Politicians are certainly welcome to denounce first-class travel arrangements, but they ought to be more focused on protecting communities from being devastated by polluters.

Make no mistake, Congress is too politically gridlocked to do much, one way or another, as the EPA transparency rule wends its way through the review process. Opponents will likely have to rely on federal courts to protect the public from this special interest skulduggery. That’s costly, too, but the price in human suffering and environmental degradation seems to mean little to those who distrust science, scientists and the scientific method so profoundly that they’d prefer to take their expertise on mercury poisoning or climate change from Breitbart or Fox News than from the folks who actually know what they’re talking about.

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