Analysis | The Energy 202: EPA tried speeding up its science reviews. Now the reviewers say it won’t work.

THE LIGHTBULB

Then-acting Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler on his way to a news conference in Philadelphia in February. (Matt Rourke/AP)

The Environmental Protection Agency’s decision last year to disband an air pollution science panel may be coming back to bite the administration. 

Last October, the Trump administration dissolved the panel of outside experts advising the agency on ways to limit the amount of harmful soot pumped into the air, in the hopes of speeding up the often-sluggish pace of environmental rulemaking.

But now, the independent scientists it charged to do the work instead are saying they want the original panel back. And the deliberations about pollution rules are dragging on even longer. 

In an April 11 letter to agency chief Andrew Wheeler, the EPA’s seven-member Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) acknowledged it does not have sufficient expertise to do the work once done by a 20-member panel. That work involves reviewing the latest science on pollution known as particulate matter — microscopic particles known to lodge themselves in the lungs and contribute to an array of respiratory or cardiovascular problems.

The EPA should “reappoint” the disbanded Particulate Matter Review Panel or “appoint a panel with similar expertise” on particulate pollution that comes from cars, coal-fired power plants and other sources, CASAC wrote to Wheeler. “The breadth and diversity of evidence to be considered exceeds the expertise of the statutory CASAC members, or indeed of any seven individuals,” the seven panelists concluded.

Louis Anthony Cox, Jr., chair of the CASAC, explained by email that his committee wants “the world’s best expertise on specialized technical details and scientific methods to ensure that we continue to provide the best possible scientific advice to the EPA.”

The EPA is weighing whether it should reverse its decision. “The agency thanks the CASAC for their review and advice and will carefully consider the comments and recommendations in the CASAC report,” the EPA said in a statement. 

The message from CASAC represents the latest instance of the Trump administration getting tripped up in its efforts to create a set of business-friendly environmental regulations. Numerous times, federal judges have ruled the EPA had short-circuited the regulatory process in delaying or reversing Obama-era decisions on issues that include chemical plant safety operations and the protection of waterways from dredging. 

Gretchen Goldman, research director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy, said the EPA was hoping to get both quality and speed by reassigning the review of soot pollution to the smaller panel.

“Now they’re getting neither,” she said.

A one-time member of the disbanded particulate-matter panel, Chris Frey, said the letter amounted to “a stunning slap in the face” to EPA’s leadership. He suggested Wheeler simply reinstate the panel with the members who had served on it last year, since the EPA wants the work done quickly and he and the others have already been vetted.

“He made a mistake, and I think the best thing he can do to correct the mistake is reinstate the panel,” Frey said.

The disbanding in October of two specialized pollution panels — one on particulate matter and another on a noxious form of oxygen called ozone — whittled down the number of independent air-pollution researchers reviewing the latest air-pollution research, and was viewed by Goldman and some other observers as an effort to sideline science that stands in the way of President Trump’s pro-industry agenda.

“It looks like another step to eliminate outside independent expert opinion,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) told Wheeler this month at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing.

But Wheeler said that getting rid of the panels would allow the EPA to finally meet deadlines under the Clean Air Act for revising pollution limits after years of missing them.

“We took a hard look at what was causing the delay,” Wheeler said in response to Van Hollen.

Wheeler had asked CASAC to review a draft scientific assessment put together by career EPA scientists on the latest research on the health effects of particulate matter.

Despite concluding it lacked the expertise to fully review the draft, the committee — made up of Wheeler appointees that included environmental officials from Alabama, Georgia, Texas and Utah — still found the career staff did not “provide a sufficiently comprehensive, systematic assessment” of potential links between breathing particulate matter and the risk of certain health problems, such as pulmonary inflammation and cancer.

David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, speaks before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee at his confirmation hearing to head the Interior Department. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

— Interior’s inspector general has opened an investigation into David Bernhardt: The agency’s Office of Inspector General announced it has launched a probe into ethics complaints against the recently confirmed Interior Secretary. The investigation is based on “requests from multiple lawmakers and others,” a spokeswoman for the office told The Post’s Darryl Fears. A group of eight Democratic senators had called for the investigation, as had numerous conservation groups. “In a letter to the executive director of one of the groups, the Campaign for Accountability, Inspector General Mary L. Kendall wrote that her office ‘received seven complaints, including yours, from a wide assortment of complainants alleging various conflict of interest and other violations by then deputy secretary of the interior, David Bernhardt,’” Fears writes. Faith Vander Voort, a department spokeswoman, said in a statement it was “important to note that the department ethics office has already conducted a review of many of these accusations at Mr. Bernhardt’s request and determined that [he] is in complete compliance with his ethics agreement and all applicable laws.”

And a probe into Bernhardt’s calendars: A letter to House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) reveals the National Archives and Records Administration gave the Interior Department until near the end of this month to answer to allegations that Bernhardt had been violating federal record-keeping laws and destroying his official calendars, Politico reports. The Interior Department has already faced questions from Democratic lawmakers about Bernhardt’s calendars. His daily schedule shows meetings with representatives of former clients, but the Interior Department has “released few details about his activities during about one-third of his days in office,” per the report. “Interior maintained in a letter to NARA on March 27 that it ‘is and at all times has been fully compliant with federal records laws.’ NARA did not respond to questions about whether that put an end to its investigation.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) (Scott Sonner/AP)

— 2020 watch: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) announced her latest policy proposal: a plan to block new fossil fuel production if she is elected president. The 2020 contender said she would issue an executive order on her first day as president to put a “total moratorium on all new fossil fuel leases, including for drilling offshore and on public lands.” In her Medium post announcing her public-lands plan, Warren also said she would set a goal of getting 10 percent of the nation’s electricity generation from renewable sources on public waters or lands and would reinstate Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments back to their original boundaries.

Could she do that as president? At least on the moratorium question, the answer is yes, according to Columbia environmental law professor Michael Gerrard. “One year before leaving office, President Obama declared a moratorium on coal leasing on federal lands, and started the process of preparing an environmental impact statement on the whole coal leasing program,” he said. “President Trump revoked these actions. The next president could issue an even broader moratorium, covering oil and gas as well as coal.”

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) met with Flint-area elected officials and residents in January. (Jake May/The Flint Journal via AP File)

— Midwestern climate huddle: Officials from Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin will meet in Chicago on Tuesday to explore options for regional cooperation on combatting climate change. All four states elected Democratic governors in 2018 who campaigned in part on ramping up low-carbon energy, with three of the four unseating Republican administrations. The meeting is being convened by a series of environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the League of Conservation Voters.

A tourist takes a picture of Anasazi ruins in Chaco Canyon National Historic Park in New Mexico. (AP Photo/Jeff Geissler)

— House panel meets in Santa Fe: Lawmakers, tribal leaders and environmental groups called for stricter federal oil and gas regulations during a four-hour House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing held at New Mexico’s state Capitol on Monday. The House members there asked state officials and environmental experts on how best to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable, and representatives at the hearing cited the need to protect the Chaco Culture National Historical Park and greater Chaco region, the Santa Fe New Mexican reports. Some at the hearing expressed support for a bill by New Mexico’s Democratic Reps. Ben Ray Luján and Deb Haaland that would “would block more than 316,000 acres around Chaco Canyon from oil, gas and other mineral extraction.” The hearing, which comes as federal and state lawmakers debate the future of methane regulation, was the first of several national hearings the subcommittee will hold, per the report.

— Federal appeals court calls on EPA to reexamine wastewater regulations: In a victory for environmental groups, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled the EPA must reevaluate a power plant wastewater rule to strengthen restrictions on toxic wastewater. “The last time these guidelines were updated was during the second year of President Reagan’s first term, the same year that saw the release of the first CD player, the Sony Watchman pocket television, and the Commodore 64 home computer,” Circuit Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan wrote. Thom Cmar, deputy managing attorney for the Earthjustice Coal Program, called it a “major victory for clean water.” The group sued the EPA on behalf of numerous environmental organizations. “The court made clear that EPA needs to strengthen the rule to protect communities living downstream of power plants, calling into question the legality of the Trump administration’s plans to weaken these public health protections,” Cmar said in a statement.

Former AccuWeather CEO Barry Myers testifies before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology’s subcommittee on environment in 2013. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

— Report found AccuWeather was rife with harassment: A report compiled by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs found the private weather forecasting company, previously led by a Trump nominee, experienced rampant sexual harassment and retaliation, including groping, touching and kissing of subordinate employees without consent, The Post’s Michael Brice-Saddler reports. That report found AccuWeather’s chief executive at the time, Barry Myers, who Trump picked to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “turned a blind eye to allegations of egregious conduct and retaliated against those who complained,” Brice-Saddler writes.

Kites fly near the Washington Monument on the Mall. (Eva Hambach/AFP/Getty Images)

— Washington monument opening delayed: The monument, which has been closed since 2016, will not reopen this spring as scheduled. The National Park Service announced it discovered potentially contaminated underground soil, The Post’s Michael E. Ruane reports, adding that spokesman Mike Litterst said the soil is below the surface and does not pose a risk to public health.

Braidwood Nuclear Generating Station in Braceville, Ill. (Madison Hopkins/Better Government Association/AP)

— High court won’t take up zero-emissions credit challenge: The Supreme Court said it would not hear a challenge to the zero-emissions credit programs for nuclear plants by New York and Illinois, rejecting a request from a trade association and utilities in those states. “The decision left standing last September’s rulings by the 2nd and 7th U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals that rejected claims that New York’s and Illinois’ ZECs intrude on FERC jurisdiction,” RTO Insider reports. “The court’s unsurprising ruling … was a victory for Exelon, the nation’s largest nuclear operator. The company is currently lobbying for nuclear subsidies in Pennsylvania.”

People play on the ice on Lake Superior in February along the shore near Duluth, Minn. (Brian Peterson/Star Tribune via AP)

— Come to “climate-proof Duluth”: As people nationwide grapple with how global warming and extreme weather and temperatures will impact where they live, Harvard University lecturer Jesse Keenan has been suggesting a relocation to Duluth, Minn. “Climate projections suggest that, because of geographic factors, the region around Duluth, the Great Lakes area, will be one of the few places in America where the effects of climate change may be more easily managed,” the New York Times reports. While Keenan’s semi-serious suggestion was initially part of a marketing plan commissioned by the University of Minnesota Duluth, the Times adds: “The science behind it, though, is no joke…First, it’s cool to begin with. That means, as temperatures increase, it will remain mild in relative terms. By 2080, even under relatively high concentrations of carbon dioxide emissions, Duluth’s climate is expected to shift to something like that of Toledo, Ohio, with summer highs maxing out in the mid-80s Fahrenheit.”

Former Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn arrives for a questioning at an investigation committee of the German federal parliament in Berlin. (Michael Sohn/AP)

— Ex-VW chief charged: German prosecutors have charged former Volkswagen chief executive Martin Winterkorn with fraud for his role in the automaker’s diesel emission scandal. He was one of five former managers from the company who were indicted on a charge of serious fraud. Winterkorn, who stepped down as CEO in 2015, was accused of covering up the fraud even after he learned the carmaker’s emissions data was being questioned, the New York Times reports. The criminal charges also “show how the diesel scandal continues to hang over Volkswagen, the world’s No. 1 maker of vehicles last year. Even after paying $33 billion in fines and settlements related to the scandal, the carmaker continues to face legal challenges and investigations from authorities in the United States and Germany.”

Today

  • The EPA small business conference takes place in Chicago.

Coming Up

  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a field hearing on “Oversight Hearing on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Management of the 2019 Missouri River Basin Flooding” on Wednesday.
  • The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission holds an open meeting on Thursday.

— A cooperative nest: A rare trio of bald eagles, with two dads and a mom, are raising three eaglets in a nest near the Mississippi River, The Post’s Angela Fritz reports.  

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