U.S. Capitol Building
Since the election of Donald Trump, considerable attention has focused on how a candidate who campaigned on promoting fossil fuels would treat the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies charged with regulating those industries.
But potential changes to the EPA do not come solely from the Executive Branch.
Over the past few weeks, a bill that may give fossil-fuel producers undue influence on the EPA's Science Advisory Board has gained new momentum in Congress.
HR 1431—also known as the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act—recently passed the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.
If it becomes law, the bill would place increased restrictions on scientists attempting to join the SAB, while making it easier for members of private industry to sit on the board.
Created in 1978, the SAB is a 48-member committee that provides independent counsel on scientific matters to the EPA's administrator.
Oil well (photo by John Hill)
Most of the EPA Science Advisory Board's present members are academic scientists, but 11 represent nongovernmental organizations and private companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Dow, and ExxonMobil, according to The Atlantic.
HR 1431 would likely reduce the number of scientists sitting on the board significantly.
One of its provisions is that scientists applying to sit on the board cannot hold an EPA grant, and that current members cannot apply for such grants for three years, or even have current contacts with the EPA.
It also bans academic scientists from participating in "advisory activities that directly or indirectly involve review and evaluation of their own work."
The stated goal of this language is to prevent conflicts of interest, but it only applies to academic scientists—not to representatives of for-profit corporations.
In fact, language in the bill states that SAB members who have financial ties to corporations that may be affected by the board's decisions are specifically not to be excluded.
The Science Advisory Board Reform Act also draws out the public comment period for SAB decisions, which the Union of Concerned Scientists says will make it easier for corporate lobbyists to influence the process.
Current rules already provide for public comments, and all SAB meetings are open to the public.
But the bill would also give the SAB other obligations, including one that requires it to hold a public information-gathering session on the "state of the science" for each major advisory activity it undertakes.
"The provisions contained in this legislation open up the process more than necessary, turning each scientific evaluation into a public hearing," said a UCS blog post on the bill, "adding cumbersome responsibilities to the SAB's already full plate."
While cloaked in the sensible rhetoric of transparency, the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act can be viewed as reflecting distrust of objective science and scientific research.
The act's critics suggest that it favors corporate interests that stand to profit from greater burdens imposed on the board.
With news headlines on the Trump Administration occupied with other matters, and the low level of attention generally garnered by procedural bills such as this one, it's possible that its impact may stay below the radar—perhaps through to its passage.