The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the climate-denying, fossil fuel-friendly Scott Pruitt is a dark shadow of its former self. Both the scientists and the scientific method itself are being suppressed and denigrated with reckless abandon.
So when a positive-sounding bill named the HONEST Act, which purports to “improve” the science at the EPA, appears in the Senate, it’d be understandable that you might be somewhat suspicious. You’d be right, but first, let’s look at what the bill, put forward by South Dakotan Senator Mike Rounds, supposedly does.
The Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act of 2017 (HONEST) purports to “preserve the integrity of the scientific review process by prohibiting the agency from proposing, finalizing or disseminating regulations or assessments based upon science that is not transparent or not reproducible.”
Science at the EPA has long been considered to be some of the best environmental research in the world, and as a federal agency, it is mandated to make it as transparent as possible. Not so, according to Rounds, who claims that the EPA “has a long history of using questionable and secretive science to justify its actions, often leading to burdensome new regulations that hurt businesses and destroy jobs.”
It’s probably not a coincidence that Rounds was paid more than $200,000 in donations from the fossil fuel industry since 2012. According to the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), he’s only voted for pro-environmental legislation 5 percent of the time throughout his entire career.
So what’s really going on? Critics have pointed out that it won’t be scientists deciding what type of research is “transparent” or not, which means that policymakers will have the final say. This means that they can essentially pick and choose whatever research they want to fit whatever narrative they want.
Considering that scientists are being fired, demoted, or are resigning en masse from the EPA – and being replaced with people who are either non-scientists or those with strong ties to industry – it’s more likely than not that this narrative will be anything but environmental.
The key problem here is that the bill’s definitions of “reproducible” and “transparent” are setting impossible standards, which means plenty of science will get excluded.
As pointed out by NPR, research done in the aftermath of an ecological catastrophe, like an oil spill, isn’t repeatable because you wouldn’t want to replicate such a disaster. This would mean that the scientific research wouldn’t be accepted by the decision-makers, even if it’s completely solid.
Similarly, making data transparent is something all scientists have to do as part of the peer-review process anyway. What the bill allows is for policymakers to nitpick with a heavy bias. As Thomas Burke, a former science advisor told NPR, “this is code for 'We are going challenge it – to raise issues of uncertainty and play the delay game' that was so successfully played, unfortunately, with things like tobacco.”
Does an EPA study want to look into the effects of coal mining on public health? Perhaps it’s no longer “transparent” or “reproducible” enough to make it to the public. Make no mistake – the HONEST Act couldn’t be more dishonest in its intentions.
The ranking Democrat member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology had some harsh words for the bill. Back in March, he said that if it passed through both the House and the Senate and became law, “the ultimate result will be more sick Americans and more dead Americans.”
It’s already cleared the House back in the spring. Will it make it through the Senate? Watch this space.