Statistician S. Stanley Young has just sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, alleging it has illegally stacked a legally required panel of independent science advisors with agency cronies. Past the issue of complying with the law, the lawsuit’s outcome could very well determine whether the federal government can, through the back door, regulate greenhouse gas emissions on a state-by-state basis.
The Clean Air Act requires that, when setting air quality standards, EPA seek the advice of a panel of experts known as the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC). When Biden EPA administrator Michael Regan assumed office earlier this year, one of the first things he did was abruptly and without cause fire by terse email all the members of all EPA’s science advisory panels, including CASAC. Administrator Regan also announced he was jettisoning conflict-of-interest rules (instituted by the Trump EPA) barring science advisors from being current or recent recipients of EPA grants.
Dr. Young, serving at the time on EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB), was one of those terminated advisors. When EPA announced it would seek nominations to reconstitute CASAC and the SAB, Dr. Young was renominated to both but was not selected to either by the agency.
Instead, EPA opted to fill the positions mostly with academic researchers with financial ties to EPA. On the seven-member CASAC, five are EPA grantees.
The new chairman, Dr. Lianne Sheppard of the University of Washington, has received over $60 million in EPA grants. Other notable grantees include Yale University’s Dr. Michelle Bell ($29 million in grants) and the University of Rochester’s Mark Frampton ($36 million in grants).
Most importantly, however, all seven CASAC members are likely to have the same point of view (identical to the agency’s) on the available science regarding fine particulate matter (dust or soot known as PM2.5) in outdoor air. This is particularly important because President Biden’s EPA has already announced that it would be revisiting President Trump’s decision to leave the federal air quality standards for PM2.5 at the level set by the Obama administration.
This decision was supported by the CASAC’s majority view in 2019 that the case to tighten the standards was essentially junk science.
What’s PM2.5 got to do with climate? Scientifically, little if anything, except that the combustion of fossil fuels results in emissions of both carbon dioxide and PM2.5. So regulatory-wise, PM2.5 could be a key means for EPA to control carbon dioxide emissions use across the country.
The Clean Air Act requires that EPA establish national air quality standards for PM2.5. States that do not attain these standards risk losing federal highway funding at EPA’s discretion. The current PM2.5 standard (12 millionths of a gram per cubic meter of air) is stringent but easily attainable in almost the entire country.
When the CASAC last reviewed the PM2.5 standard as required by law in 2019, it was pressured to advise that the PM2.5 standard should be tightened from 12 to as low as zero – that is, an impossible goal of no dust or soot in the air. The CASAC rejected that as without a scientific basis and left the standard at 12.
Now the agency wants to tighten the PM2.5 standard. However, it has no scientific basis for doing so because of the most recent CASAC review. Rather than fighting the CASAC panel, the Biden Administration simply purged the existing members and installed more pliable members. The agency will have its crony-filled CASAC rubber-stamp the agency’s already-determined conclusion to tighten the standard, which could go as low as zero.
Depending on where the EPA sets the PM2.5 standard, many or even all states will fall out of attainment and compliance with the Clean Air Act, handing EPA vast control over economic development in non-attainment areas. That control could include banning new or existing power and manufacturing plants, control over highway use and construction, and even control over agricultural production.
During 2009-2010, the Obama administration and a Democrat-controlled Congress tried to saddle the country with climate regulations in the form of a cap-and-trade system. That effort failed, but the anti-coal Obama administration had a backup plan – EPA regulation of PM2.5 emissions from coal plants that bankrupted most of the industry. Eleven years later, we are in a similar situation. Climate legislation being pushed by a Democrat President and Democrat-controlled Congress is struggling. But it may not matter because EPA, with the aid of CASAC, could once again turn PM2.5 into a regulatory weapon to achieve legislative goals on climate that are otherwise floundering.
Given that no federal court, including the Supreme Court, is likely to second guess CASAC’s view of PM2.5 science, regardless of how off base it is, the only thing standing in the way of the Biden administration and the dire scenario laid out could very well be Dr. Young’s lawsuit.
• Steve Milloy publishes JunkScience.com and is the author of “Scare Pollution: Why and How to Fix the EPA” (2016, Bench Press).