‘Transparency’ sounds like such a good thing. It’s difficult to imagine a way in which transparency could actually be used to reduce the amount of information available, much less sabotage studies designed to improve both the health and environment of Americans. But that’s exactly the scheme that EPA director Scott Pruitt has dreamed up.
The Environmental Protection Agency is considering a major change to the way it assesses scientific work, a move that would severely restrict the research available to it when writing environmental regulations.
Under the proposed policy, the agency would no longer consider scientific research unless the underlying raw data can be made public for other scientists and industry groups to examine. As a result, regulators crafting future rules would quite likely find themselves restricted from using some of the most consequential environmental research of recent decades, such as studies linking air pollution to premature deaths or work that measures human exposure to pesticides and other chemicals.
How could “more transparency” actually mean less information and worse decisions? Many of the studies that the EPA and other agencies that address the health and safety of Americans depend on require access to health records. Those health records can be used only if the information is kept carefully anonymous and if some parts of the information are shielded from public scrutiny. Many of these studies include agreements that portions of the data will not be released to the public. Otherwise, these studies risk revealing private information about the health and activities of individuals.
Under the new proposed guidelines, many of these studies would be either forced to violate privacy rules, or their data could not be used. By filtering this information out, Pruitt hopes to make EPA decisions without being confronted with information that would counter his desire to allow companies to release unlimited toxins.
And Pruitt thinks he has scientists over a barrel—he can claim to be championing ‘transparency,’ while actually upholding his right to ignore the damage his actions will take.
The proposed new policy — the details of which are still being worked out — is championed by the E.P.A. administrator, Scott Pruitt, who has argued that releasing the raw data would let others test the scientific findings more thoroughly. “Mr. Pruitt believes that Americans deserve transparency,” said Liz Bowman, an E.P.A. spokeswoman.
The Pruitt exclusion principle would not just limit the implementation of new rules: it could be applied to existing regulations. Researchers would be told to cough up the details of health records used in preparing their report, or withdraw their research. In many cases, especially with older reports that have long been the basis of some of the EPA’s most important regulations, this would be simply impossible.
The pending E.P.A. policy would have implications for much of what the agency touches, whether it is new rules addressing climate change or regulations for pesticides and protecting children from lead paint.
“This affects every aspect of environmental protection in the United States,” said David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health under President Barack Obama. Mr. Michaels, now a professor at George Washington University, called the plan “weaponized transparency.”
The idea of “weaponized transparency” may sound like a contradiction in terms … and that’s exactly what Pruitt wants.