WASHINGTON — Scientists who receive grants from the Environmental Protection Agency will no longer be allowed to simultaneously serve on the agency's nearly two dozen advisory boards, an unprecedented directive EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said would increase the scientific integrity behind its rule-making.
"Whatever science that we are involved in here at the EPA shouldn't be political science," Pruitt told a group of reporters Tuesday. "We want to ensure that the American people have confidence ... in the process and that the advisers that we have in each of these respective capacities are providing independent, arms-length input to us as we make decisions."
The move was immediately denounced by environmental activists who said it would allow Pruitt to replace impartial researchers with industry allies.
Steven Hamburg, chief scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, called it "the height of hypocrisy."
Pruitt "is trying to gaslight Americans into believing that industry-funded scientists can offer EPA impartial advice, while those with EPA research grants are biased,” Hamburg said. “EPA’s fundamental duty is to protect the health of American families from dangerous pollution, and it can only do that by using sound science.”
Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general who sued the EPA 14 times over various rules, said members of the 22 committees that guide the agency's work on numerous fronts should not be receiving money from the very entity they are guiding and reviewing.
The administrator pointed to three of the most important panels — the Board of Scientific Counselors, the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, and the Science Advisory Board — where 20 members collectively received $77 million in EPA grants over the past three years, according to agency figures.
The funding was part of billions of dollars in grants awarded to universities and other non-agency researchers each year.
In addition, Pruitt said he's realigning the membership of those three advisory boards to better reflect the geographic diversity he said has been missing. The number of states that will be represented now will grow from 32 to 40 and include more Midwest and Western states, such as Wyoming, North Dakota and Pruitt's home state of Oklahoma.
"The challenges for air and water quality are very diverse across the country: Utah is the second driest state in the country; Minnesota's a little bit different with respect to the needs they have," he said. "So it's very important to have a contingent of scientists and individuals that represent the needs that we have across the country."
The agency said it expects to release a list of those new members within the week. But the Washington Post reported that at least a few whose names have been circulating have ties to industry.
The committees are influential in developing regulations to promote clean air, water and land. The Science Advisory Board, for example, reviews the quality and relevance of the scientific and technical information being used by the EPA or proposed as the basis for agency regulations and advises the agency on broad scientific matters.
Pruitt demurred when asked to provide examples where an EPA grant recipient on one of the boards provided a biased recommendation
"What's better is just to look forward and make sure that as these folks serve that independence is secured and integrity is maintained in the process," he said.
Environmental groups who have been critical of Pruitt since he was nominated to run the EPA view the move as an effort to add more voices from areas with oil and gas interests that have supported Pruitt and President Trump.
"Today’s announcement is a blatant effort to stack the boards and put narrow industry interests ahead of public health and safety," Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement released Tuesday.
Pruitt said those appointed to the 22 commissions who have ties to industry or whose research has been funded by industry groups will face scrutiny "on a case-by-case basis" through the agency's conflict-of-interest rules already in place.
The conservative FreedomWorks Foundation, which fought what it considered regulatory overreach by the Obama administration, applauded Pruitt's move.
“Anyone studying the issue of regulatory reform knows how agencies like the EPA have been able to overwhelm even regulatory watchdogs within government through their ability to fund research that meets their political objectives," said Patrick Hedger, policy director for the group. "Research is supposed to direct regulation, not the other way around."