Three of the EPA’s advisory committees could be dissolved under a Trump administration executive order, a move critics label another attempt to muzzle science.
The executive order (E.O. 13875), which President Donald Trump signed in June, mandates that a third of all discretionary advisory committees in the federal government—meaning those not required by statute—be eliminated by Sept. 30. The order has spurred a guessing game of how many, and which, Environmental Protection Agency advisory panels could be on the chopping block.
Many of the EPA’s panels serve as a scientific check on the agency’s work by peer reviewing technical documents and pollutant analyses. Democrats and environmentalists fret Trump’s order is a bid to limit scientific input into the agency’s work.
“This is an attempt to remove the vital role of real information and facts feeding into the policy decisions that are happening under this administration,” said Genna Reed, lead science and policy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
But Katie Tubb, a senior policy analyst for energy and the environment at the Heritage Foundation, countered that calling the order “an attack on science is a bit overdramatic.”
Ten of the EPA’s 22 advisory committees fall into the discretionary category that’s covered by Trump’s order, an agency spokesman told Bloomberg Environment.
Because agencies can round down the number of committees to be dissolved—according to guidance issued July 5 by Russell Vought, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget—the EPA could be looking at the elimination of three.
Complicating matters is a provision in the order that lets agencies count toward their total any committees terminated since Jan. 20, 2017. A Republican aide to the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee said the EPA did eliminate one panel during that time, dropping the number of committees it must now cut to two.
But that committee, which addressed the Toxic Substances Control Act, is listed by the General Services Administration as having been mandated by Congress. That presumably means that, as a nondiscretionary committee, it wouldn’t count toward the total, according to Reed.
Children’s Committee at Risk?
The EPA’s determination of the number to be cut contrasts with remarks Rep. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) made at a July 16 House subcommittee hearing focused on the issue. He said only two panels would have to be cut because by his count, just six of the agency’s 22 committees qualify as discretionary.
The EPA didn’t specify which are among the 10 could be cut, or which ones it’s scrutinizing for elimination.
Michelle Mabson, a staff scientist in Earthjustice’s healthy communities program, said she’s worried the children’s health committee and the National Environmental Justice Advisory Committee are vulnerable.
Barbara Morrissey, the chair of the Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee, said she has gotten no indication that her committee could be cut. In fact, she said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has periodically indicated that “children’s health is a top priority.”
The children’s committee has been meeting twice a year, “but I don’t know how that will wash out in this exercise,” said Morrissey, a toxicologist with the Washington state Department of Health. “I do feel like the committee is giving the agency important advice on the protection of children, so I think it would really be a loss if they ended up removing the committee.”
But the children’s health committee wasn’t asked to weigh in on the pesticide chlorpyrifos, which has been linked to cognitive delays and alterations of brain structure in children, Morrissey said. The EPA decided not to ban the pesticide July 18.
The chairman of the environmental justice panel, Richard Moore—who co-directs the sustainable communities group Los Jardines Institute—didn’t respond to interview requests.
Will Cuts Affect EPA Science?
The EPA didn’t directly respond to questions about what criteria it will use to decide which committees to cut. An agency spokesman said only that the EPA “will review its [Federal Advisory Committee Act] obligations in line with the president’s executive order.”
The Federal Advisory Committee Act governs the organization and public participation aspects of appointing advisory committee members and panel meetings.
The EPA’s advisory committees give technical guidance to the agency on issues ranging from drinking water to the environmental impact of infrastructure projects.
The mandate to cut committees governmentwide lines up with the White House’s stated goal to eliminate bureaucratic waste and save taxpayer dollars.
Tilted Toward Academia
Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) also said during the July 16 House hearing that many advisory committees are heavily tilted toward academia, with far fewer members representing business and other groups.
Eliminating a third of all discretionary committees “does not seem like a daunting challenge to me,” said Marshall at the same hearing. He said the executive order will help the EPA focus its committees on current needs, rather than ones that existed when the panels were formed.
Former Presidents Ronald Reagan in 1985 and Bill Clinton in 1993 made similar moves to cut the number of federal advisory committees, Marshall said.
“It’s simply good governance for an administration to review executive branch advisory committees,” agreed Tubb, of the Heritage Foundation.
“Administrations routinely create and cut committees. Since 1997, we’re at an all-time high of 1,082 advisory committees, with over 40% of those being discretionary,” she said. “Surely there is room to evaluate, consolidate, and cut boards.”
But Democrats and environmental groups say Trump’s move is meant to muffle scientific input, and that federal advisory committees aren’t costly to run.
“If we instead hired these same people, with these qualifications, and had them serve within the government, the cost of that would be enormous,” said Reed, from the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“It’s a really great deal for the government to have these experts at their disposal, taking valuable time out of their busy lives to provide a public service.”
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