Trump Hatches a New Plan to Attack Science

In the administration’s ongoing war on environmental laws, the tactics can be subtle but the strategy is straightforward: Give corporate polluters every chance to fight the rules they don’t like.

May 03, 2019

Arterra/UIG via Getty Images

Corporate polluters and fossil fuel company executives undoubtedly smiled when Donald Trump took control of the White House. They must have downright celebrated when he appointed their friend Scott Pruitt to head up the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And they probably cheered even more enthusiastically when Trump replaced the embattled Pruitt with former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler.

But these victories were just the tip of the (melting) iceberg. With the White House providing the assist, industrial polluters now feel emboldened to take on one of their biggest challenges yet: fighting scientific studies and the role they play in crafting our country’s environmental and public health policies.

It makes perfect sense: Health science is rarely on a polluter’s side. We’ll never see a big breaking-news headline, for instance, announcing that researchers have just discovered the surprising life-prolonging benefits of inhaling fine particulate matter. Instead, we just get study after study after study validating the basic proposition that breathing in soot is really, really bad for people, even fatal. Research like this goes on to inform many of the policies meant to protect Americans from air, soil, and water pollution. 

So what’s a poor polluter to do? When the truth turns out to be your enemy, how do you fight back without appearing to be . . . y’know . . . anti-truth? The answer: Lean on your good friends in the Trump administration, who are the real professionals when it comes to generating confusion around what’s true and what’s not. 

The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released a memo last week offering “guidance” to federal agencies that rely heavily on empirical data for their rulemaking. The memo purports “to reflect recent innovations in information generation, access, management, and use, and to help agencies address common problems with maintaining information quality.”

It may sound innocuous, but to many public health advocates, the memo looks an awful lot like a government-issued how-to booklet for polluting industries that might want to legally challenge the science that backs certain federal policies. Such lawsuits would gum up the regulatory works and keep new protections from ever being finalized. As the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Andrew Rosenberg recently explained to InsideClimate News, the memo “essentially says that anyone—mostly industry—can challenge the data or technical information, and the agency then has to develop a response to every challenge, and then the person who challenged the data can appeal, and you have to go through this cycle again, apparently endlessly.”

The Trump administration has tried to pull similar stunts before. The Pruitt-led EPA proposed a sweeping new rule last year with a title—“Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science”—that belied its true purpose: to make it much harder for federal agencies to use the best science available when formulating policies that could impinge on a polluter’s business practices. The administration argued that certain types of longitudinal studies—such as a 1993 study linking particulate air pollution to mortality, which became foundational to many of our modern-day air quality laws—are inherently suspect, since the thousands of people who took part in them did so on the condition that their health information would be kept private.

A huge plume of smoke rises into the air after an explosion on an oil barge in Staten Island, New York, in 2003.

Bill Turnbull/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Back in the mid-1990s, pro-industry groups (including some associated with the Koch brothers) even came up with a catchy epithet for this perfectly common and legitimate methodological approach: “secret science.” Their goal was to sow distrust of the data by suggesting that the scientists who’d been collecting it were somehow hiding something—including participants’ names and health information—from the public. For more than a decade, corporate interests and a handful of their legislative water carriers fought science under the pretext that all they wanted was scientific “transparency.”

Their success was limited . . . until President Trump came into office. In him corporate polluters finally found what they were longing for: a chief executive who didn’t care about sound science or the conclusive data that it yields and whose personal relationship to factual truth was tenuous and transactional.   

And polluters definitely need his help. With a pair of anti–“secret science” bills currently tied up in Congress, America’s staunchest defenders of particulate pollution are now hoping they can sidestep the messy business of lawmaking. Enter the OMB “guidance” that opens up dozens of brand-new avenues for polluters to delay, or even kill, public health protections through protracted court battles.

It’s easy to lampoon the Trump administration’s many missteps and foibles. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves—some of the most dangerous people working within it know exactly what they’re doing. And we’d be smart to keep a close eye on them. Our health depends on it.

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onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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