Scientists may steal a page from the oil industry’s playbook to stop President Donald Trump rewriting the U.S. position on climate change, by relying on an obscure law meant to ensure federal agencies present accurate information.
The 2001 Information Quality Act, passed under Republican President George W. Bush, has for years provided a way for companies and their lobbyists to challenge federal agencies’ assumptions on issues ranging from the threats posed by global warming to the health effects of petrochemicals.
Now, as Trump’s leadership seeks to get the Environmental Protection Agency into line with the new administration’s more pro-business and anti-regulation agenda, the act could become a tool for rebellious scientists and climate advocates, legal experts said.
Trump has expressed doubts about the science behind climate change, putting his administration on a collision course with an overwhelming majority of scientists who believe that human consumption of fossil fuels is warming the planet and triggering sea level rise and more frequent powerful storms.
A spokesman for Trump's EPA said last week that the agency's website is under review, raising worries of a rewrite that could put the site at odds with EPA employees' own research. A Trump administration official did not respond to a request for comment.
"Posting blatantly false information on the EPA's website would violate the Information Quality Act," said Romany Webb, a climate law fellow at Columbia University. "The guidelines clearly state that information disseminated to the public, including via a website, must be substantively accurate."
Michael Halpern, deputy director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit climate science advocacy group, said the Information Quality Act could be one of the options scientists consider using to ensure federal agencies match scientific research.
The Information Quality Act allows individuals who object to information presented by a federal agency to request a correction. If the agency denies the request, the individual can appeal in a process overseen by an independent inspector general.
In the case of the EPA, the appeal would go to a panel of political appointees – who will likely be named after Trump’s pick to head the EPA, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, is confirmed. The EPA’s Inspector General, however, is already in place: Arthur Elkins, a former EPA lawyer appointed by Barack Obama in 2010.
"We have discretionary authority to look at anything we think is important and valuable to the agency's activities," Alan Larsen, counsel to the Inspector General, told Reuters. "If employees were asked to do something improper ... they could bring that to the IG's office."
The Washington Post reported this week that a member of the Trump transition team had sent an email stating inspectors general across federal agencies were being held over on a "temporary basis." After some backlash, Trump transition team members then sought to reassure the inspectors general they would not be forced out, the Post reported.
There are other ways employees can flag their concerns, including by complaining to the agency’s Scientific Integrity Officer. The Scientific Integrity Office meets quarterly with the Inspector General's office to discuss complaints.
Industry’s use of the Information Quality Act over the years has had mixed results. Just five of the 20 requests for correction filed in 2014 ended up fully or partially corrected, according to a report to Congress.
Halpern said, however, that he expected better results if scientists file complaints rather than industry.
Overruling a correction request brought by scientists within the agency, he said, could violate the EPA’s scientific integrity policy, which states agency scientists have the right of last review over information that relies on their expertise.
A former EPA official who asked not to be named said that, under normal circumstances, the internal mechanisms to protect website accuracy should work, but added "we're in uncharted territory."