E.P.A. Updates Plan to Limit Science Used in Environmental Rules

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has formally revised a proposal that would significantly restrict the type of research that can be used to draft environmental and public health regulations, a measure that experts say amounts to one of the government’s most far-reaching restrictions on science.

The revisions made public Tuesday evening mean the Environmental Protection Agency would give preference to studies in which all underlying data is publicly available. That slightly relaxed restrictions in an earlier draft that would have flatly excluded any research that did not offer up its raw data, even if that data included medical information protected by privacy laws or confidentiality agreements.

Even with the latest changes, scientists warned that the regulation would let the federal government dismiss or downplay some of the most important environmental research of the past decades. That includes research that definitively linked air pollution to premature deaths but relied on the personal health information of thousands of study subjects who had been guaranteed confidentiality.

The proposal is one of dozens of environmental protection rollbacks that the Trump administration is scrambling to finalize before the presidential election in November. It caps more than three years of efforts to dilute scientific research, especially on climate change and air pollution, which has underpinned rules that the fossil fuel industry calls burdensome.

Andrew R. Wheeler, the administrator of the E.P.A., said the proposed regulation was an effort to bring greater transparency to government research.

“I am committed to ensuring that the science underlying E.P.A.’s actions is of the highest quality,” he said in a statement. Once the rule is finalized, he added, it “will ensure that all pivotal studies underpinning significant regulatory actions at the E.P.A., regardless of their source, are available for transparent review by qualified scientists.”

Under the new version of the plan, the E.P.A., when writing or revising environmental regulations, would have to give greater weight to research in which the underlying data are available to be retested.

Critics of the proposal, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest general scientific society, argued that the administration’s real goal was to raise suspicions about the bedrock studies that helped establish modern regulations governing clean air and water.

Seminal research that has definitively linked polluted air to premature deaths, like a 1993 Harvard University report known as the Six Cities study, often persuaded participants to offer personal health information and other private data by extending strict confidentiality.

Environmental activists and former Obama administration leaders said the new rule would make it easier for the E.P.A. to weaken or repeal existing health regulations because studies that had previously been used to show the benefits might now be discarded or assigned less importance.

Gina McCarthy, who led the E.P.A. under former President Barack Obama, said the Trump administration already was facing scrutiny over its handling of the coronavirus, and she criticized the agency for moving forward with the new rule in the middle of a public health crisis.

“Now is not the time to play games with critical medical research that underpins every rule designed to protect us from harmful pollution in our air and in our water,” she said. “The American people have the right to know the truth about threats to our health, and the truth about our future in the face of the climate crisis.”

Scott Pruitt, President Trump’s first E.P.A. administrator, initiated the plan in 2018, and it faced an avalanche of criticism from the scientific community. When Mr. Wheeler succeeded him in 2019, he indicated that the agency intended to move forward with the plan but would take some time to review the public’s concerns.

In November, a draft supplement offering additions and clarifications to the original rule was obtained by The New York Times. Rather than responding to the critics, the E.P.A. appeared to be widening the scope of the plan by allowing its limits on research to be applied retroactively to reverse existing air and water regulations.

The version made public on Tuesday appeared to drop the retroactivity element and said the rule would only apply to studies “that are potentially pivotal to E.P.A.’s decisions or influential scientific information that are developed in the future.”

But several critics of the plan noted that many existing regulations come up for renewal or reconsideration every few years, so even longstanding rules could be subject to the restrictions. Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said benchmark science like Harvard’s Six Cities air pollution study might soon be deemed inadmissible.

“They’re putting in nonscientific criteria to decide what science the agency can use,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “Now the most important thing is whether the data is public, not the strength of the scientific evidence.”

The fresh revisions give the E.P.A. administrator the discretion to consider a study that has not made all its personnel and other data public. But Mr. Rosenberg said that would only take scientific decision-making out of the hands of scientists and hand it to a politically appointed administrator.

“It makes it easier for industry in most cases to say, ‘There’s too much uncertainty; you shouldn’t move forward,’” he said.

In January an advisory panel of Mr. Trump and Mr. Wheeler’s own scientists criticized the so-called transparency proposal, saying the E.P.A. “has not fully identified the problem to be addressed” by the new rule. When the plan is inevitably challenged in court, legal experts said, a judge was also likely to ask what health problem the agency sought to solve by enacting the regulation.

Stanley Young, a Heartland Institute adviser whose research has questioned the links between particulate matter pollution and premature death, called the latest E.P.A. plan a “reasonable compromise” and said regulations themselves could harm public health by straining the economy.

“It’s well established over hundreds of years that the rich generally live longer than the poor,” said Mr. Young, a retired statistician who is also a member of the E.P.A.’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee. “To the extent that resources are taken from individuals for a purported group improvement, there’s a trade-off between the money you leave with the people and the money you take to execute government policy.”