A former adviser to President Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency transition team called for shrinking the regulator and overhauling the way it uses science to set policy.
“They’ve really gotten away with murder in misusing science and justifying regulations on the basis of junk science,” Myron Ebell, who left the transition team he led last week, said in an interview in his Washington office.
Ebell, who made clear he wasn’t speaking on behalf of the Trump administration, said he believed most of the goals of the agency created in 1970 during the presidency of Republican Richard Nixon, had been achieved, and that the number of employees should be reduced to 5,000 from the roughly 15,000 currently employed.
“If the Trump administration is serious about keeping Trump’s promises, they will have to reform the use of science,” said Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a public policy organization that advocates limited government.
By revisiting the science that underpins a swath of environmental rules, including those governing ozone and mercury pollution, the EPA can begin to undo them, Ebell said.
Ebell’s remarks come amid mounting concerns that the Trump administration has restricted the external communication of agency staff. Some other changes — such as the disappearance of climate change pages from the White House website — reflect the shift in priorities from former President Barack Obama to Trump. In the meantime, the EPA has maintained a climate change section on its website, including a set of “frequently asked questions” about the phenomenon.
“The way to clear the air about what the EPA is doing — and what the state of our environment is — is to reform the use of science so they have to use publicly available studies that can be replicated, that can be criticized,” Ebell said. “Then we’ll find out the condition of the environment was a whole lot better than we’ve been told.”
Ebell pointed to a 1993 landmark air pollution study conducted by Harvard University’s School of Public Health that paved the way for more stringent regulations on air pollution by linking fine particulate matter to mortality risk. The underlying data from that federally funded research, known as the Six Cities Study, was never publicly released because its participants were promised confidentiality, according to the university.
“During this administration, we’ll have to fight harder than ever to defend basic facts and science,” Dani Heffernan, a spokeswoman for the environmental group 350.org said in an e-mail. “What Ebell calls ‘junk science’ is the research helping set policies to protect our communities and our climate.”
Ebell singled out a stringent new smog standard imposed under Obama limiting ground-level ozone pollution to 70 parts per billion, down from the Bush-era level of 75 parts per billion. There is no public health distinction between those two levels, but the economic impacts are enormous, Ebell said.
“We need to look at the costs of these regulations and the health benefits of destroying jobs,” Ebell said.
A former EPA staff member disagreed with that analysis.
“It sounds like Myron Ebell has been reading some alternative facts,” said Liz Purchia, who served as an acting associate administrator in the agency during the Obama administration. “He is going to need to provide a legal and scientific justification for redoing the agency’s work.”
The government is doing more damage to Americans’ health by killing the jobs that pay their bills, Ebell said. Once you look at it that way, he said, the smog standard “not only has no health benefit, it has a very large health harm.”
The EPA is swollen with too many people, far beyond what’s now necessary to protect public health and the environment, he said. “Most of EPA’s work in terms of protecting the public health and the environment has been accomplished,” but career scientists employed there and “the special interests that depend upon them” aren’t ready to “declare victory.”
“I’m not an expert in downsizing agencies, but I think the Trump Cabinet has people in it who are good at hostile takeovers. Maybe they should be consulted,“ Ebell quipped, noting that billionaire investor Carl Icahn is a special regulatory adviser to the new president.
Trump understands the EPA “can be a huge obstacle” to economic development, Ebell said.