Thursday, January 26, 2017

EPA Dealing with Censorship, Hostile Takeover by New Administration

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) woke up this week to a barrage of restrictions that a former Administrator under George H.W. Bush called "going down a very dark road." All Agency communications have been shut down and must now go through political review by the new administration. That includes all "public-facing documents" such as "news releases, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content." The administration has also put a freeze on any new work, on contract approvals, on grant awards, and on new hiring. Essentially, the Agency is in lockdown. Similar actions have been taken to restrict all other federal agencies.

The first casualty was the Department of Interior twitter feed, which had retweeted a photo showing the extremely small crowds at Trump's 2016 inauguration versus President Obama's first inauguration in 2008. Many news media reported that Trump was embarrassed by the low turnout and thus closed down the twitter feed, as well as all other twitter feeds from federal facilities. This ban on tweeting did not, of course, extend to his own unsecured twitter account, which he used to fabricate lies about the crowd size that were proven false by actual facts (in contrast to the "alternative facts" [aka, blatant lies] pushed by Trump).

Temporary freezes on agency outreach have happened before, mainly as a way for the new administration to get its team in place and figure out what the EPA is doing. But former EPA administrators confirm that the current censorship and bans far exceed practices under past administrations, either Republican or Democratic.

But the new administration has stated clearly its intent is to restrict agency science and roll back regulations that protect human health and the environment, deal with man-made climate change, and even improve gas mileage standards. The head of the transition team was Myron Ebell, head of the anti-science, anti-regulation libertarian consulting organization, the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Trump's pick to run the EPA is Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma Attorney General who has been the fossil fuel industry's ally, issuing multiple lawsuits to block health protections that would require corporate accountability. He also apparently lied to Senators during his confirmation hearings. Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil and a key funder/promoter of climate change denial and a close ally of Russia's Vladimir Putin, is the pick for Secretary of State.

All of these signal a return to the early days of past Republican administrations who used their political power to censor scientific information and destroy the EPA. Ronald Reagan, for example, had hired Anne Gorsuch, another pro-fossil fuel/mining attorney general, as EPA administrator. She was forced out after intentionally trying to subvert science. Likewise, George W. Bush put fossil fuel lobbyist Philip Cooney in charge of his Council on Environmental Quality. Cooney was caught intentionally editing scientific documents to downplay the severity of man-made climate change. He too was forced to leave the administration, immediately taking a position at ExxonMobil.

So Americans have a valid reason for concern. The incoming administration has been vocally hostile to the EPA since the beginning of the campaign. They have nominated people who have histories of being aggressively anti-EPA and anti-science. Their first acts were to restrict public communication and outreach. They have already signaled rollbacks of congressionally-mandated health and safety rules, while promoting the interests of fossil fuel corporations (many of whom are now part of the administration).

Scientists must push back against such politically motivated anti-science. A few agencies who have had their twitter feeds blocked have apparently set up "Alt-feeds" to continue serving the public. Given the huge success of the Women's Marches on the day after the inauguration (that far exceeded inauguration crowds, despite Trump's blatant lies to the contrary), a group of scientists are planning a Scientists March on Washington.

Meanwhile, the EPA and other agencies have internal scientific integrity document:

The EPA's 14-page scientific integrity document, enacted during the Obama administration, describes how scientific studies were to be conducted and reviewed in the agency. It said scientific studies should eventually be communicated to the public, the media and Congress "uncompromised by political or other interference."

All of us, the public and scientists alike, need to be vigilant to make sure the new administration does not try to remove scientific integrity from the science agencies, as, unfortunately, has been the case in prior Republican administrations.  

[Photo source: Union of Concerned Scientists]