The Truth About EPA’s “Mass Advisory Board Firings”

By Stephen Heins, The Word Merchant

What role should appointed (i.e. not-elected) Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) boards have with respect to environmental regulations in our country? It’s a valid question and timely, given the recent negative news coverage over EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s action in not automatically reappointing some board members. The way the press howls about it you would think board members have a Divine Right to be on those boards. Did you know there are 20 such “advisory boards” at the EPA? And did you know that many of the board members receive EPA grants–in the millions of dollars? This is the swamp Trump repeatedly referred to when campaigning. It’s downright corrupt. And yet when Pruitt tells board members that will have to stoop to the level of reapplying if they want to stay on a board, establishment Washington has a cow. The EPA, as we’ve written about for years, has profound impact on the oil and gas industry–hence our interest. MDN friend Steven Heins, an energy and regulatory consultant and former vice president of communication for Orion Energy Systems, has written a guest post for MDN musing over the EPA’s advisory boards and the role of the public and private sectors with regard to environmental issues.


A recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal (below) got me thinking. There seems to be several parallel discussions and/or debates going on between public sector advocates and private sector advocates about the role of the public sector and the private sector. For the record, I am a private sector advocate, but I have a good record on environmental issues, since 2001, when I first joined a large-scale energy efficiency lighting manufacturer.

Anyway, the disconnect (between the public and private sectors) centers around environmental issues, national health, oil and natural gas, American waterways and proper fuels and renewables for electricity generation.

Personally, I prefer good economic development and practical environmentalism, because each have a proper role. However, the current political cacophony has made it almost impossible to have a “Red Team vs. Blue Team” debate, but I am willing to attempt to delineate the divisions.

On the public sector side:

Public sector advocates believe that the EPA and its 20 advisory boards should be the final voice of all things environmental, public health issues, the energy industry, the electrical grid and almost all American waterways. The Federal Agencies like the DOE, HHS, DOI, FERC, FCC, Bureau of Land Management, and the state agencies will need to seek concurrence and approval from the EPA.

On the private sector, also known as the loyal opposition:

The private sector is deeply troubled by the EPA creating the Clean Power Plan (CPP) and Waters of the United States (WOTUS) regulations without any direct legislative power, without a favorable ruling from the Supreme Court or without Congressional approval. Private organizations have complained they were never allowed to provide practical insight or regulatory input into these regulations. (*See the close ideological and financial connections between EPA Advisory Boards and EPA grants at the bottom).

Practical environmentalists are concerned Gina McCarthy testified in front of Congress that the Clean Power Plan would reduce carbon emissions by only 0.01 percent, but she continues to proclaim the almost miraculous emission reductions of the CPP. In addition, the private sector is bothered by the fact that the recipients of many EPA research grants were never properly disclosed and a conflict is of interest was never reported, especially by many scientific advisers who voted on the EPA’s various committees and their issues**.

The EPA’s record on water management (like Colorado toxic spills) and health issues (like lead in Flint, MI) makes the cities and states nervous given the fact they know they will have many, many problems with older infrastructure. Municipalities and the private sector reasonably expect that the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of the Interior are better equipped to handle public health, sanitation and clean water.

Certainly, there is a clear majority of states who favor oil, electricity and gas sectors remaining under the states’ responsibility. Also, the Department of Energy should be allowed to stay in charge of the electrical grid, as the DOE has been doing since the 1930s. This balance of power between the federal and state governments is known as “cooperative federalism.” I don’t know what to call an agency like EPA which tries to become the titular, ultimate “decider” federal agency in Washington, DC.

Finally, with over 4,000 new EPA regulations, including the sweeping powers of the Clean Power Plan and Waters of the United States, the EPA has sought to effectively instill itself as the final arbiter and judge for the American economy, which would relegate other federal agencies such as Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, Federal Trade Commission, Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management and the various state agencies into virtual second class citizenship.

*The EPA’s more than 20 scientific advisory boards are in particular stocked with academics who receive EPA grants. As part of a 2016 lawsuit, the Energy and Environment Legal Institute showed that 24 of the 26 members of EPA’s then clean-air advisory panel had received or were receiving EPA grants. The institute estimated the 24 received $190 million. At the EPA’s ozone panel, 17 of 20 advisers received $192 million in agency grants.

**After the calls for full disclosure last week, this seems like a perfect time to call for complete disclosure from all associated parties, public or private, involved in any material fact or scientific study. The rules on Wall Street about material facts and disclosure should apply to the business community, media, medical associations, trade organizations, academia, environmental groups, not for profits, scientific bodies and governments including their agencies. Frankly, I am comfortable with any of the above-mentioned organizations commissioning any study it deems important, but with full disclosure of all elements involved–financial, advisory, rule making, research information and all other material facts–that went into that study. After all, these large entities are very powerful and well financed through profits, donations, memberships, taxes and government grants. It is worth mentioning that none of these groups are infallible or incorruptible.

The Wall Street editorial Steve was musing over:

Time was when a newly elected American government could appoint its people to run it. These days that’s a source of controversy, as Trump cabinet officials seek to name new science advisers.

Administrator Scott Pruitt is replacing half the members of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Board of Scientific Counselors, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has suspended some 200 science panels pending a review. To listen to the critics, they are “gutting” and “shutting down” federal science and “ousting” and “silencing” respected academics.

Ignore the hyperventilation. Mr. Pruitt is merely choosing not to renew some board members nearing the end of their first, three-year term. Nobody is getting fired, and board members can reapply. Past practice has been to hand scholars a second term, but Mr. Pruitt is under no obligation to accept Obama appointees. Mr. Zinke’s review is temporary, and America will survive if the invasive species advisory panel misses a meeting.

Both actions are a step toward reforming a scientific bureaucracy that holds enormous power over regulations despite uniform points of view and clear conflicts of interest. The EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors, which is charged with ensuring that the agency’s science is sound, nonetheless waved through the Obama Administration’s dubious climate models and arbitrary “social cost of carbon” calculations.

The EPA’s more than 20 scientific advisory boards are in particular stocked with academics who receive EPA grants. As part of a 2016 lawsuit, the Energy and Environment Legal Institute showed that 24 of the 26 members of EPA’s then clean-air advisory panel had received or were receiving EPA grants. The institute estimated the 24 received $190 million. At the EPA’s ozone panel, 17 of 20 advisers received $192 million in agency grants.

House Science, Space and Technology Chairman Lamar Smith has shown that advisers use these grants for research—and then sit on the government panels that peer review that research. They then review EPA rules based on their own research.

Greens are slamming Mr. Pruitt’s office for suggesting he may consider industry experts for board positions, but why not? This was routine before greens intimidated Administrations into barring those voices. A rigorous science doesn’t shrink from competing points of view or evidence. The EPA should have conflict-of-interest rules that apply equally to grant-receiving academics and business executives.

Mr. Zinke’s review is aimed at ensuring that Interior’s boards contain more state and local advisers, particularly from communities near public lands. This is part of the Trump Administration’s broader goal of re-establishing a more balanced partnership between the federal government and the states—much-needed after the imperial dictates of the Obama years.

Messrs. Pruitt and Zinke could eliminate those boards that aren’t required by statute. But if they’re going to exist they should be more than rubber stamps for the progressive agenda or tickets for federal grants.*

*Wall Street Journal (May 23, 2017) – Board of Scientific Conformity: Join an EPA advisory panel and get an EPA grant