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Republican science bills raise serious concerns about the EPA and deregulation

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The Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act (HONEST Act, H.R. 1430) and the Science Advisory Board Reform Act (SAB Act, H.R. 1431) have cleared committee, and are set to change the ways in which the Environmental Protection Agency uses science to formulate rules.

On Monday, U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, introduced the HONEST Act, while U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), and cosponsor Smith introduced the SAB Act. According to the Committee, both bills “promote an open and honest Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as well as preserving the integrity of the scientific review process.”

The HONEST Act would require the EPA to only use science that has all of its data available to the public. A similar bill passed the House in the last session, but never came to a vote in the Senate. The Obama White House had threatened to veto the bill because it would “impose arbitrary, unnecessary, and expensive requirements” on the EPA.

The SAB Reform Act would change who is on the advisory board that assesses the “quality and relevance” of the science that the EPA uses. It would ban scientists that have received EPA grant money within the last three years, while allowing the appointment of industry-sponsored experts.

Rep. Smith, an avowed climate change skeptic, stated in a press release that the goal is to form “a more balanced group of scientists to assist EPA in fulfilling its core mission.” In a statement announcing the bills, Smith said that “An open and honest scientific process is long overdue at EPA. American taxpayers have often had to foot the bill for regulations and rules based on hidden science that has not been available for review by the public.”

Smith commented at a science committee hearing last month titled “Make the EPA Great Again,” that “the EPA has proposed some of the most expensive and expansive and ineffective rules in history.” As reported by the Intercept and the Center for Responsive Politics, the biggest contributors to Smith’s campaign committee are oil and gas companies.

Image Lamar Smith
Lamar Smith (R-TX) (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Many have accused Republicans of waging a “war on science,” and that a political shift right has pushed for a dumbing down of scientific discourse in attempts to discredit everything from climate change to evolution, while countering what is considered out of control regulatory activism. President Trump ran on a campaign promise to slash the EPA’s budget and relax what conservatives argue is excessive Obama era regulation of industries like energy sector coal and oil & gas, intending to spark economic growth.

The appointment of Scott Pruitt, a staunch opponent of the EPA, hasn’t helped, stoking fears that such deregulation will result in increased pollution of air and water, lead and mercury poisoning, as well as an increase in greenhouse gasses, oil spills and environmental catastrophes. Just this Thursday, Pruitt commented on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” that carbon dioxide was not a primary contributor to global warming, a statement at odds with the established scientific community, and decades of research by scientific institutions and federal agencies, such as the EPA.

Even the Trump Administration’s current immigration policy has sparked scientific/political debate. In a recent episode of Star Talk Radio titled “Let’s Make America Smart Again,” hosted by science guru Neil deGrasse Tyson and comedian Chuck Nice, guest Fareed Zakaria joined to discuss the impact of immigration and government cuts on science and technological innovation in America. Zakaria stated, “our only hope is that we continue taking in the best and brightest in the world.” Zakaria lamented what has become “an assault on knowledge” in the United States, and warned that the result could be the migration of the best and brightest to Europe or other more science friendly destinations. Neil deGrasse Tyson pointed out that Star Talk was originally funded via the National Science Foundation, which has been bipartisan, but subject to political winds.

At this Thursday’s House Science Committee hearing, Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) warned, “We now have a president who has attacked mainstream scientific views repeatedly … The threats to the scientific enterprise in America right now are profound.” Rep. Johnson’s opening statement explained the impetus for the HONEST Act:

I think it might be instructive to remind folks how we got to today’s markup of the HONEST Act. Several years ago a tobacco industry consultant attempted to obtain access to the American Cancer Society’s epidemiology data. He was denied access to that data due to his extensive prior connections with the tobacco industry and prior misuse of American Cancer Society data. Then the Chairman came to his aid, by subpoenaing the EPA to provide the Committee with the data used in two seminal health studies conducted by Harvard and the American Cancer Society. This data contained the personal health histories of tens of thousands of American citizens. Thankfully, since EPA did not possess this data, they were unable to provide it to the Committee. I say this because the Chairman had indicated his intent to publicly distribute these tens of thousands of people’s health histories over the internet – a horrifying prospect.

However, that answer didn’t satisfy the Majority. The Majority’s solution to this manufactured problem was the Secret Science Reform Act. At the legislative hearing on this bill, the Majority invited three witnesses with extensive ties to the tobacco industry. And this would be a theme that would continue. The groups that endorsed the Majority’s bill are a “who’s who” of toxic chemical manufacturers. On the other hand, groups that opposed the bill included the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Lung Association, the American Association for Justice, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and a host of other public health and environmental groups.

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