If the EPA doesn’t believe in science, what is it good for?

What's left when the Environmental Protection Agency throws facts out the window?

Note: This is part four of a four-part series about the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The agency, its policies, and the science that underpins those regulations have been under scrutiny in recent weeks. In fact, the agency is in danger of being drastically cut back or dismantled entirely. You can learn more about that by reading part one, part two, and part three, as well viewing a gallery of photos of what America looked like in the early days of the EPA. This week, we’ll focus on where the EPA stands right now.

The Endangerment Clause

The Environmental Protection Agency is supposed to make and enforce regulations that protect the environment. But as the scientific agency seems to throw science out the window, it’s worth asking: what happens when the EPA stops putting our health and wellbeing first?

On April 2, 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court made a decision that was easy to miss, if you’re not a policy wonk, and easy to forget even if you were. In the weeks and months following the decision, there’d be a mass shooting on a college campus, not to mention a near collapse of the economy. So it was easy for most of us to overlook their verdict on whether or not the Environmental Protection Agency had an obligation to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

The 2007 case dates back to an earlier lawsuit, where Massachusetts sued the EPA for failing to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, which are known to contribute to climate change. Whether the EPA has such an obligation depends on how you interpret a specific clause of the Clean Air Act. The clause states that the EPA Administrator must set an emissions standard for any air pollutant “from any class or classes of new motor vehicles or new motor vehicle engines, which in his judgment cause, or contribute to, air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.”

The case wound its way through the lower courts. By the time it made it to the Supreme Court, the states of California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington (and the territory of American Samoa)—along with some environmental and civil society organizations—had joined the suit. Baltimore officially joined the lawsuit (although Maryland did not), as did Washington, D.C., and New York City. That’s right: New York is a city so nice it sued the EPA twice.

In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that the EPA had to regulate greenhouse gas emissions unless it could prove that they did not endanger public welfare.

“That shifted the conversation over to the EPA,” says Glen Kedzie, a senior executive with the American Trucking Association (ATA) who has previously worked for the EPA. “They had to come up with what’s called an endangerment finding as to whether these pollutants rise to the level of danger for either human health or welfare. In 2009, the EPA came back and said that these greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles are in fact pollutants that endanger both public health and welfare.”

The EPA based its decision on more than 100 peer-reviewed studies and input from a public comment period. The summary reads, “The Administrator finds that the current and projected concentrations of the six key well-mixed greenhouse gases—carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6)—in the atmosphere threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations.”

Greenhouse gases are putting us at risk. Luckily, the EPA is obligated to limit their emission. That is, as long as the agency chooses to accept the facts.

the carbon fingerprint
Human emitted CO2 leaves distinctive traces in the atmosphere. NASA

Climate’s Change’s Fingerprint

Earlier this week, current EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said the following on CNBC: “I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact, so no, I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.”

It was an odd (and incorrect) statement from the Administrator of the EPA, an agency that—based on the best available scientific evidence—disagrees with Pruitt’s position, as does NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Center for Disease Control, the U.K.’s Met Office, and the Japan Meteorological Organization.

To doubt human impact on climate change is to doubt the verdict that greenhouse gases endanger the public. And the evidence against such a conclusion is staggering.

“One of funniest ways that scientists know that climate change is happening is called the Suess effect,” says Katherine Moore Powell, a climate ecologist at The Field Museum.

Yes, the effect is named after a Dr. Suess, but no, it’s not that one. This Dr. Suess was an Austrian chemist who figured out that by measuring changes in atmospheric carbon isotopes—that is, how many neutrons a given carbon atom has—you can glean all sorts of information. The technique was originally used for radioactive carbon dating (figuring out how old rocks and fossils are), but these days it’s also used to measure human contributions to greenhouse gases present in the atmosphere. Because carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels does not contain the isotope 14C, if the amount of carbon dioxide in your air samples over time is increasing but the amount of 14C isn’t, it’s a good bet that the carbon dioxide is coming from human sources.

“it’s kind of like a fingerprint left by the type of carbon dioxide being emitted,” says Moore Powell. “It’s one of the areas that’s not really open for dispute.”

It is unclear what evidence Pruitt, who majored in political science and communications before getting his law degree, has to countermand the scientific consensus. A cursory Google search has not turned up any speeches in which he’s uttered the words “isotope.”

Part of what this administration is doing, says Kedzie, is considering undoing the exhaustively researched conclusion that greenhouse gases endanger public wellbeing, and are therefore the EPA’s responsibility. “The first domino to fall will be the one based upon scientific studies and scientific review to make those determinations,” Kedzie says. “It’s really questioning the science that’s supporting these findings from the EPA. And so, there’s the big question about what role science is going to play in this administration.”

school buses in parking lots
School buses—and the kids who ride them—are some of the beneficiaries of DERA. dhendrix73 via Flickr

Get that Diesel Out of My Air

It was a different program—the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act (DERA) program—that prompted me to reach out to Kedzie, the American Trucking Association executive.

On March 4, ATA—along with Volvo, Corning, and several other companies—wrote Pruitt a letter asking the EPA administrator not to cut the program, which is on the chopping block in Trump’s preliminary budget.

“We’ve been an avid supporter of DERA ever since its inception back in 2005,” says Kedzie.

The reason is simple: The program provides municipalities and manufacturers funds to offset the cost of replacing polluting, heavy-duty vehicles—from trucks to school buses—with cleaner alternatives.

“There may be a 10-year-old bus on the road, and that bus will function fine because diesel is very long lived,” says Gabe Rozsa, a lobbyist with the National School Transportation Association (NSTA). “Whereas the new bus might have significantly lower emissions. To encourage the adoption of the new bus, the program provides a small cost share which would then lead to the retiring of that 10- or 15-year-old bus.”

The NSTA is interested in the program because studies have shown that exposure to fumes from diesel exhaust can cause a host of respiratory illnesses and cancer. Kids are especially at risk because they breathe faster than adults—and thus breathe in more diesel fumes relative to their body weight—and because their bodies are still growing and developing.

“The bottom line is that the program helps to protect children around the bus, as they’re standing there waiting to load onto the bus, or they’re getting on the bus or off the bus,” says Rozsa. “If the new buses are so much lower in emissions, why not encourage their adoption?”

And despite the assertion that programs kill businesses, Kedzie has a different bottom line. “I mean it all boils down, for the most part, to the business case,” he says, explaining why the ATA supported the first round of fuel efficiency standards, and why they support the second round as well.

Many of the biggest companies—like Wal-Mart, for example—won’t work with trucking companies that haven’t installed cleaner technologies. And from the trucking industry’s perspective, fuel is a huge expense. Programs like the Department of Energy Supertruck competition, which endeavored to create lower-emitting, more fuel-efficient tractor trailers, proved to be good for business.

“We don’t want to get rid of the regulation because we were hunkered down around six, six-and-a-half miles per gallon for like 25 consecutive years,” says Kedzie. The trucks rolling out of the Supertruck competition achieved double that—12 to 13 miles per gallon. They have the potential to save companies $20,000 a year on fuel.

This is not the first time that DERA has found itself on the chopping block. In 2011, the EPA’s budgets briefly eliminated the program. But it was never clear why the program—which enjoys bipartisan support —was threatened.

In 2015 when Pruitt was Oklahoma’s Attorney General, he sued in conjunction with Murray Energy (a coal company), Peabody Energy (a coal company), and Southern Power Company (an energy company whose portfolio includes coal fired electrical plants)—a lawsuit against the EPA’s Cross State Air Pollution Rule. The rule is designed to reduce some of the same pollutants from power plants that DERA helps to remove from the heavy automobiles.

“You’ll notice in the discussion they never ever talk about benefits,” says Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “They never talk about reduced instances of asthma or reduced instances of heart disease or anything else due to regulations. They only talk about costs. They construct a narrative saying thousands of regulations that are just there because the bureaucrats are too lazy to move them from the books, or because they just want to be mean to business. The way that I’m stating it, of course, sounds ridiculous—but that is the narrative. They never will talk about benefits.”

ice crystal lattice
EPA uses science to inform its rule-making. Strip that away and what’s left? Pexels

An EPA Without Science

Earlier this week, the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, a group of scientists and academics who use their free time to track changes to the roughly 25,000 websites run by the federal government, reached out to The New Republic to relay a curious finding. The paragraph describing the work of the EPA’s Office of Science and Technology Policy no longer lists “science.” Similarly, when the agency describes how it determines water-quality standards, the reference to “science-based standards” has been replaced by “economically and technologically achievable standards.”

The change reflects the administration’s persistent, fallacious assertion that EPA regulations hurt businesses (we covered why it doesn’t in Week 3 of this series). The technique has some thinking that the administration is playing by Big Tobacco’s playbook—delay through obfuscation and distortion of the underlying science, until the evidence becomes so overwhelming that change is all but inevitable. In the meantime, though, people will suffer. Some will die.

Both Pruitt’s statement and the website changes come on the heels of proposed federal budget that will slash the EPA by 25 percent. The proposal includes not just drastic cuts to climate change research (which were expected) but also deep cuts to areas that disproportionately affect people of color, including three separate cuts at programs geared toward Native American tribes, and slashing the budget for the agency’s Environmental Justice Initiative by 78 percent. Study after study has shown that communities of color are more likely to live with higher-than-average pollution. A 2016 report by the US Commission on Civil Rights found that the EPA repeatedly fails to ensure that those communities are treated equally. It’s unclear how the agency is supposed to improve with less money, and with the complete dismantling of the agency’s environmental justice office.

It’s likely this that prompted Mustafa Ali, a senior adviser and assistant associate administrator to the agency who worked on issues of environmental justice, to resign on Thursday.

“My sense of enforcement and compliance is that they’ve been cut to the bone already in the past,” says Deborah Ann Sivas, a professor of environmental law at Stanford University. “They are very under-resourced.”

Similarly cut are the EPA’s budgets for research—not just climate change, but also for chemical safety and sustainability, and endocrine disruptors, like BPA. This class of chemicals seems to be growing in use—especially around food—but isn’t well studied, despite the fact that it can seriously harm child development.

On the other side of the aisle, some tend to act as if science can tell us what to do. But it can’t. At best, this method of reasoning and of evaluating evidence can only inform our decision making process. The vast majority of scientific evidence, for example, tells us that we should exercise, eat our vegetables, and limit junk food and alcohol if we want to be healthy. Come Friday, however, many of us find ourselves sprawled on our couches, streaming episode after episode of Bill Nye Saves the World on Netflix, a beer in one hand and fast food in the other. To a certain extent, this cognitive dissonance is what it means to be human. The evidence, however, suggests that this isn’t the right way to run a government.