EPA's Own Science Advisers to Rebuke Agency Over Auto Rollback

(Bloomberg) -- Some of the EPA’s science advisers say the agency is ignoring its own research in moving to relax vehicle emission requirements, a signature element of the Trump administration’s campaign to roll back environmental regulations.

A working group of the Science Advisory Board has recommended reviewing the EPA’s justifications for the several planned rollbacks, including the agency’s conclusion that Obama-era auto efficiency requirements must be changed because they are too stringent.

The group wants the full, 44-member board to scrutinize the science behind the decision to reassess the standards, a move supported by automakers that put the EPA on a collision course with California and its pollution mandates. The board could vote to take up the issue Thursday.

“If the SAB takes this on and does their job fairly, it’s not a trivial event,” said Chet France, a former director of assessment and standards at the EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality.

The Science Advisory Board is a panel of outside researchers and experts who review the quality of the technical information the EPA relies on, gives advice on broad scientific matters and examines agency research programs. It has sought similar rule reviews before -- eight times from Fall 2012 through Fall 2016.

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But this time, the SAB working group has singled out five major actions planned under President Donald Trump it wants the board to examine, and the panel adopted unusually pointed language to highlight problems with the EPA’s handling of the issues.

Consider the working group’s analysis of the EPA’s April 2 conclusion that emission requirements for cars and light trucks are too stringent. That Trump administration determination -- a 180-degree reversal from the agency’s conclusion under former President Barack Obama just 15 months earlier -- triggered a formal process of dialing back the requirements. Where the Obama-era determination was backed by more than a thousand pages of technical assessments and other studies, the SAB working group said the Trump administration’s pivot was based on much thinner evidence.

The EPA didn’t identify or account for the potential effect on greenhouse gas emissions, climate change and public health and safety when it reopened the review, the working group said in a memo. “These would seem to be logical and necessary areas for scientific and technical assessment.”

The auto efficiency rule was designed to slash carbon dioxide emissions from cars and light trucks by boosting fuel economy to a fleet average of more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025.

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“EPA’s Science Advisory Board plays an important role in informing EPA actions on policy and regulatory matters,” agency spokesman Lincoln Ferguson said by email. “We value the board’s expertise, and we welcome feedback from the chartered panel on areas in which they are interested in getting additional scientific information that is relevant to the rulemaking process.”

The eight-member working group is also taking issue with the EPA’s proposal to rescind an Obama-era rule that took aim at pollution from so-called glider trucks that are retrofitted with rebuilt diesel engines that lack modern emissions controls.

The EPA’s proposed repeal is based on a legal interpretation of federal law, with the agency asserting that glider trucks are not new motor vehicles and so it doesn’t have authority to regulate them under the Clean Air Act. But in announcing the move last November, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt also cited a study from Tennessee Technological University that concluded pollution from glider trucks was equal to -- and sometimes less than -- that from modern trucks.

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That study was funded by the rule change’s prime potential beneficiary: Tennessee-based Fitzgerald Glider Kits. It wasn’t peer reviewed. And the university that authored the research has now withdrawn it, citing questions about the "methodology and accuracy" of the study.

By contrast, the EPA’s own researchers came to a different conclusion, after using lab tests to estimate that glider trucks spewed four to 40 times more nitrogen oxide and at least 50 times more particulate matter than modern competitors.

All of this raises questions about the “adequacy” of the science supporting the rollback and suggests the EPA has shirked its obligation to examine the public health consequences of the change, said the Science Advisory Board working group.

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“This proposed rule is based on claims and assumptions about glider vehicle emissions, safety and cost that could be assessed via rigorous technical analysis, but it appears that EPA has not attempted to undertake relevant analyses,” the working group said in a memo. “Furthermore, there is little mention of effects on public health in the proposed rule.”

The working group also has recommended reviewing other EPA policy changes, including the agency’s move to repeal the Clean Power Plan that throttles greenhouse gas emissions from electricity and its proposed rollback of a 2016 rule requiring oil and gas companies to pare methane releases.

The board is “exercising its oversight role and making sure that rules are being based on the best available science,” said Dave Cooke, a senior vehicles analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. It’s an important check as Trump’s EPA is more “cavalier” in “ignoring science” and is relying more heavily on industry research, he said.

The SAB working group’s recommendations reassure environmentalists who worried a revamp of the panel threatened its independence and oversight. Under a policy Pruitt announced last October, members of EPA’s scientific advisory boards are barred from also receiving agency grants. While Pruitt cast the change as a way to limit conflicts of interest and ensure independent counsel, critics fret the policy discourages academics from participating while tilting membership in favor of industry-aligned researchers.

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