Scott Pruitt’s Contradictory Approach to Conflict of Interest Concerns

By: Kasey Brenner

On October 31, 2017, Scott Pruitt, Trump-appointed Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency issued a directive addressing the goals of strengthening and improving the independence, diversity, and breadth of participation among members of EPA federal advisory committees.[1] In order to “strengthen member independence,” this directive prohibits scientists from serving on the EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) if they are currently a principal investigator or co-investigator on a research project that receives EPA grant funding, or if they are “in a position that otherwise would reap substantial direct benefit from an EPA grant.”[2]

Pruitt suggested his intentions of keeping researchers with EPA funding out of the Agency’s SAB a few months ago in a speech to the Heritage Foundation.[3] According to Pruitt, individuals receiving agency funding and serving on agency advisory boards raises red flags as to how independent, transparent, and objective their recommendations to the board are.[4] The new directive seeks to prevent “conflicts of interest” by excluding scientists who receive EPA research funding, but Pruitt does not seem to acknowledge potential conflicts of interest associated with industry-funded scientists serving on an advisory board.[5] Groups of environmentalists and scientists quickly condemned these changes as contrary to protecting public health and the environment, and questioned Pruitt’s motives. According to Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, “Pruitt’s purge has a single goal: get rid of scientists who tell us the facts about our environment and health.”[6]

Though many who reject Pruitt’s directive as counterintuitive see it as a “fundamental misrepresentation of how conflicts of interest work,”[7] it might not be that surprising in light of his agenda set on aggressive deregulation, as evidences by the Administrator’s extensive efforts to repeal Obama-era environmental legislation, including the Clean Power Plan, the Clean Water Rule defining “waters of the United States,” and effluent limitation guidelines for steam-electric power plants.[8] Bob Sussman, former EPA Deputy Administrator under President Clinton and Senior Policy Counsel to the EPA Administrator under President Barack Obama, sees through Pruitt’s stated focus on fundamentals, since his actions have been “defined by an obsessive focus on undoing the legacy of Barack Obama’s EPA, downsizing the Agency’s workforce and budget, repealing rules on the books, weakening EPA’s science capabilities, and scaling back oversight of state programs.”[9]

This recently policy to bar scientists receiving EPA funding from serving on scientific advisory committees is certainly unprecedented, but is it also illegal? It could be subject to challenge under federal conflict of interest laws as well as the Administrative Procedures Act, “given the inherent contradiction in excluding scientists who receive EPA funding but including scientists who receive funding from companies subject to EPA regulations.”[10]

[1] Scott Pruitt, Strengthening and Improving Membership on EPA Federal Advisory Committees, EPA (October 31, 2017) https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2017-10/documents/final_draft_fac_directive-10.31.2017.pdf.

[2] Id.

[3] Brady Dennis, Scott Pruitt Suggests he Will Restrict Scientists Who Get EPA Grants From Advising the Agency, Wash. Post (October 17, 2017)  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/10/17/scott-pruitt-suggests-he-will-restrict-scientists-who-get-epa-grants-from-advising-the-agency/?tid=a_inl&utm_term=.4281809c860b.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Dennis, supra note 3.

[7] Id.

[8] Bob Sussman, Back to Basics or Slash and Burn? Scott Pruitt’s Reign as EPA Administrator, 47 Envt’l L. Rep. News & Analysis 10917, 10920 (November 2017) https://www.eli.org/sites/default/files/docs/47.10917.pdf.

[9] Id. at 10917.

[10] Romany Webb, Scott Pruitt’s Attack on Scientists Serving on Advisory Boards is Illegal, Sabin Center for Climate Change Law: Climate Law Blog (November 3, 2017) http://blogs.law.columbia.edu/climatechange/2017/11/03/scott-pruitts-attack-on-scientists-serving-on-advisory-boards-is-illegal.

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