Wheeler Announces a New ‘Transparency’ Rule That His Critics Say Is Dangerous to Public Health

In one of his final acts, the EPA administrator restricted the agency’s use of research findings based on “secret science,” aka confidential patient health data.

Andrew Wheeler, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, listens during a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing, May 20, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Credit: Al Drago-Pool/Getty Images

Andrew Wheeler, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, listens during a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing, May 20, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Credit: Al Drago-Pool/Getty Images

Share this article

In one of his final, boldest strokes as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Andrew Wheeler on Tuesday announced a new “transparency” rule that could keep the agency from considering some of the most well-documented health research in the world. The Trump administration argues that because the patient information in these studies remains confidential, they are “nontransparent.” 

Wheeler immediately sought to downplay the significance of the rule, which his critics called an Orwellian effort to hamstring the EPA.  

“There is no scientific study based on this rulemaking that will be absolutely ruled out from use by the agency,” Wheeler insisted.  

Newsletters

We deliver climate news to your inbox like nobody else. Every day or once a week, our original stories and digest of the web’s top headlines deliver the full story, for free.

He noted that his successors will have the discretion to include pivotal studies, regardless of the new restrictions on science based on confidential health data.

But scientists, public health advocates and environmental activists who have fought the proposal for the past two years denounced the move, saying it creates a fundamental shift that could hobble the agency, transforming scientific decisions into political ones. 

They say the new rule, cloaked in a “good government” guise (its full name is the “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” rule), offers industry and other foes of regulation a new legal avenue for challenging environmental protections in ways that could lead to thousands of additional premature deaths. Regulations related to climate and clean air will be especially at risk, they say.

The rule is “a dangerous step in the wrong direction—one that threatens the integrity and use of the best science, and consequently threatens our health and lives,” said Harold Wimmer, president and CEO of the American Lung Association, which joined with 54 other health and science groups last year in urging the EPA to withdraw the proposal. “Under the misleading veil of ‘transparency,’ this rule excludes the full consideration of scientific information that EPA uses in its policy decisions.”

Sudip Parikh, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, noted that the Trump administration was finalizing the rule amid a crisis that has only underscored the risk posed by government decision-making that doesn’t rely on the best science.

“As the ongoing pandemic has made abundantly clear, scientific expertise and the use of valid scientific evidence are critical to good decision-making,” Prikh said.

The idea of restricting the EPA’s use of scientific studies dates back to the 1990s, when landmark studies by researchers at Harvard and the American Cancer Society demonstrated the link between fine particulate matter pollution, known as PM 2.5, and premature death. The tiny particles, which are 2.5 microns or less in width and lodge deeply in the lungs, come from car exhaust and other forms of combustion. 

The tobacco and fossil fuel industries engaged in an extraordinary campaign designed to discredit the studies, characterizing the health privacy protections around the data as a nefarious form of secrecy. The Republican-led House of Representatives, in response to the industry pressure, passed legislation three times that would restrict the EPA’s use of studies where the health data is not publicly available—limiting the agency’s use of research based on individualized patient information. 

The Senate never took up those measures, but the Trump administration did—and now, its critics say, has put in place a rule that could leave the EPA vulnerable to litigation if it relies on some of the strongest environmental health research in regulating air pollution and other environmental hazards.

It’s a key issue for climate, because the science on the health risks of fine particulate pollution formed the backbone of the cost-benefit analysis for most Clean Air Act rulemaking over the past two decades, including all of the Obama administration’s efforts on climate change.

Last month, Wheeler finalized another new rule that restricts the EPA from considering the co-benefits of reduced concentrations of PM 2.5 when it makes rules on other pollutants from combustion. And now, the “transparency” rule could further limit the EPA’s use of PM 2.5 studies.

Wheeler said he thought that the early PM 2.5 studies likely would still be used by the agency, since the underlying data—while never made public—has been reanalyzed by other researchers. But that may be subject to interpretation. 

The rule, which will go into effect on Wednesday, gives opponents of regulations an opportunity to challenge EPA decisions on the basis of whether the scientific studies had been sufficiently transparent—as Wheeler conceded.

“What we’re saying from this point forward, is that there will be a cause of action—people will actually be able to take us to court—if we don’t follow this regulation today,” Wheeler said. “So this empowers the American people to demand future transparency on this agency going forward.”

Critics of the rule argue that, in fact, it empowers industry opponents of environmental regulation to tie up the EPA in endless litigation over the conduct of science.

President-elect Joe Biden’s environmental advisers have urged him to make repeal of the “transparency” rule a high priority, but the Trump administration took steps to make that more difficult. 

The rule was crafted as an internal “housekeeping” matter that Wheeler said could not be subject to a quick repeal by Congress under the Congressional Review Act. 

But some lawmakers indicated they disagree with that interpretation. “EPA Administrator Wheeler is attempting to disguise a new rule restricting the EPA’s access to public health data as a small internal matter,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a strong advocate of climate action. “If implemented, it would hurt all Americans by making it harder to study the damage big polluters do to our health and to hold them accountable. Wheeler’s ludicrous argument fits into his pattern of undermining science for his polluter patrons.” 

Whether it will require action by Congress, litigation or a lengthy rulemaking process to undo, the “transparency” rule is yet another obstacle on the road to Biden’s climate goals, tossed in the pathway by the outgoing Trump administration.