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Feb 22, 2020

Scuttling science

Co-produced with PRX Logo

This episode originally was broadcast Sept. 14, 2019. It is the first of two shows in which we are looking at how the Trump administration has turned its back on science, usually in favor of industry.

Our first story examines federal advisory committees – expert panels that guide the federal government on everything from air pollution to clean drinking water. President Donald Trump signed an executive order that will eliminate hundreds of them and is removing scientists from those that remain. Reveal’s Elizabeth Shogren travels to Capitol Hill to interview an environmental chemist who says the administration’s actions are an assault on science itself. Then host Al Letson interviews Sacoby Wilson, an environmental health scientist who helps poor communities of color fight pollution. He serves on an Environmental Protection Agency advisory panel that could be eliminated by Trump’s executive order. 

Our next story looks at the Trump administration’s rollback of Obama-era fuel efficiency and emissions standards for cars. Jeff Alson, who spent more than 40 years at the EPA, shares how the administration justified those rollbacks based on scientific modeling that he and many other experts say doesn’t make sense.

Finally, Letson talks to Mandy Gunasekara, who helped engineer the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and the Clean Power Plan. The former EPA senior policy adviser defends the administration’s deregulatory approach to the environment, arguing that warnings about the dangers of climate change are exaggerated.

Dig Deeper

  • Read: National parks report on climate change finally released, uncensored
  • Read: Scientist who resisted censorship of climate report lost her job
  • Read: Killing migratory birds, even unintentionally, has been a crime for decades. Not anymore
  • Read: Top Interior officials ordered parks to end science policy, emails show 
  • Listen: Silencing science
  • Listen: Behind Trump’s energy dominance

Credits

This week’s show was produced by Elizabeth Shogren and Najib Aminy and edited by Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis. Reported by Elizabeth Shogren. 

Our production manager is Mwende Hinojosa. Original score and sound design by Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda, who had help from Amy Mostafa and Laurel Hennen Vigil. Photo illustration by Michael I Schiller/Reveal. Photo of industrial smokestack by Herby_fr under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, Democracy Fund and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
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Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.
Al Letson: Since coming into office, President Trump has repeatedly flabbergasted scientists by sending tweets and making statements that go against the facts. For example, Coronavirus is new, and scientists don't know how it will behave, but as the death toll from the virus passed 1,000 earlier this month, Trump said this to a group of governors.
President Trump: Now, the virus that we're talking about having to do... you know, a lot of people think that goes away in April with the heat, as the heat comes in. Typically, that will go away in April.
Al Letson: Doctors who study the Coronavirus say it's way too early to know if this will happen. Trump had this to say about wind turbines that generate electricity.
President Trump: And they say the noise causes cancer. You tell me that one, okay.
Al Letson: Yeah, there's no evidence to support that.
Al Letson: And back in September, when Hurricane Dorian was ripping through the Bahamas, Trump insisted he was right in predicting the storm would also hit Alabama, even though the National Weather Service said it wouldn't.
Speaker 4: Mr. President, you're going to weather jail.
Al Letson: Despite jokes on late night talk shows, lots of experts have serious concerns about the President's attitude towards science and data. We're going to be looking at how the Trump administration has turned its back on science with a show we first brought you this fall, and a story that's been unfolding behind the scenes in Washington.
Mikie Sherrill: Okay, this hearing will come to order. Without [crosstalk 00:02:10]...
Al Letson: In July, Democrats on Capitol Hill called a hearing of the House Science Committee.
Mikie Sherrill: Good afternoon, and welcome to today's joint hearing of the Investigations and Oversight and Environment sub-committees.
Al Letson: It's in one of those dark-paneled rooms, like what you see on TV sometimes. Lawmakers are worried that President Trump is taking the science out of federal advisory committees. Those groups are supposed to provide guidance on policy decisions. Here's Democrat Mikie Sherrill from New Jersey.
Mikie Sherrill: It's essential that these committees aid the EPA in fulfilling its mandate to protect human health and the environment. Unfortunately, over the course of the last two and a half years, we've seen a multi-pronged attack on these committees.
Al Letson: Three top scientists sit at a long table across from her.
Deborah Swackha...: My name is Deborah Swackhamer, and I'm a professor emerita from the University of Minnesota.
Al Letson: She's a leading environmental scientist. Her research showed how toxic chemicals like PCBs contaminate the Great Lakes. For decades, under both Republican and Democratic presidents, Deborah served on important advisory committees for the Environmental Protection Agency. But when President Trump came into office, things changed.
Deborah Swackha...: Interference with science advisory boards at EPA is consistent with a broader pattern of science misuse by the agency. The EPA administration has demonstrated a pattern of cherry-picking scientific evidence, of ignoring rigorous scientific consensus, or simply-
Al Letson: Reveal's science reporter Elizabeth Shogren has been tracking how the Trump administration has been sidelining science and weakening environmental protections to favor industry. She was at this hearing, too, and Elizabeth, why does it matter what happens to committees like the one Deborah Swackhamer was on? I got to say, it sounds pretty obscure
Elizabeth Shogr...: You're right. A lot of these committees are completely out of the limelight, but they can play a really important role in government. They help agencies make decisions that are informed by science. There are about a thousand of these committees across the government, and they can influence decisions that are really important to our lives, like how much pollution there is in the air, and is it safe for us to breathe?
Al Letson: So what's been going on under the Trump administration?
Elizabeth Shogr...: There have been lots of examples of Trump administration officials sidelining or ignoring science in order to help industry. We've covered some of this on our show, like the example of an effort to censor science at the National Parks Service. This was important research being done to see how much more flooding there will be at national parks because of sea level rise and storm surge connected to climate change.
Elizabeth Shogr...: President Trump is really disrupting the role that science usually plays in government. The shakeup at federal advisory committees is another example of this, and that's why I wanted to meet Deborah Swackhamer.
Mikie Sherrill: The witnesses are excused, and the hearing is now adjourned.
Elizabeth Shogr...: Excuse me. Pardon me. Hi, I'm Elizabeth Shogren.
Deborah Swackha...: Oh.
Elizabeth Shogr...: So nice to meet you.
Deborah Swackha...: Sorry, yeah, here we are.
Elizabeth Shogr...: That's okay. You can recognize me with my big mic. Anyway, so nice to meet you in person.
Deborah Swackha...: Yeah, nice to meet you.
Elizabeth Shogr...: She's rushing for a plane, so I grab some time with her right in the hearing room. Her committee, the Board of Scientific Counselors, helps EPA scientists decide where they should focus their research. She was chairing it when President Trump took office. A few months into his presidency, EPA officials told her colleagues they'd get second terms, but then dozens of scientists were dismissed.
Deborah Swackha...: All of a sudden, all these people were not on these committees.
Elizabeth Shogr...: And what was your reaction to that?
Deborah Swackha...: I was horrified.
Elizabeth Shogr...: And what happened to you at that point?
Deborah Swackha...: I still had a year left on my appointment, so I was not let go, but I was removed as chair.
Elizabeth Shogr...: Meanwhile, the committee was basically defunct. Then...
Deborah Swackha...: I applied to do a second term, but I was not chosen.
Elizabeth Shogr...: Deborah says, in her committee and others, independent scientists were driven out, and in many cases, replaced with industry people from companies like Exxon Mobil and Dow Chemical that have a financial stake in weakening regulations.
Elizabeth Shogr...: The EPA also made it harder for working scientists to join these boards.
Deborah Swackha...: They've taken the science out of science advice, and they've made them very political.
Elizabeth Shogr...: What is your sense, in general, of how the Trump administration's approach to science and policymaking has changed the way the Environmental Protection Agency can or cannot do its job?
Deborah Swackha...: Oh, I really see this as a strategy. They're actually being very smart. They're not abolishing the science advisory committees. They're using them by populating them with vested biased interest to basically rubber-stamp this political agenda.
Elizabeth Shogr...: Just to be clear, other administrations have made changes to these advisory boards, and Deborah says she's seen past EPA leaders ignore their advice.
Deborah Swackha...: But they never told us what to say, they never messed with our composition.
Elizabeth Shogr...: No one from the Trump administration would talk with us. Official have justified the shakeup as a way of reducing redundancies and adding other points of view. The President's allies say many of these committees get in the way of Trump's pro-business agenda.
Elizabeth Shogr...: Deborah sees Trump's handling of the federal advisory committees as part of a broader effort to suppress science. The Trump administration is rolling back more than 90 rules and regulations at the EPA and other agencies, designed to protect people and nature.
Deborah Swackha...: People say, "Oh, you must be so upset about EPA rolling back all these rules." I say, "You know, I am, but it can be reversed. It can be changed. Common sense people can make a difference in the future." But I worry about science itself, because the whole point of science was to find truth. It wasn't to be political, and it wasn't to be believed or not. My least favorite phrase in the world is, "Do you believe in climate change?" My answer is, it's not a religion. You don't believe or not believe. The evidence says yes, it is. It's not a belief.
Elizabeth Shogr...: So from your perspective, this is very serious.
Deborah Swackha...: Oh, yes. Oh, absolutely. If people lose the trust in science, I think so much of our society is built on strong science, and so if they lose that, I think we're just on shaky ground. We've lost kind of our backbone, you know? And I don't know how to get that back.
Elizabeth Shogr...: In June, President Trump launched a sweeping overhaul of federal advisory committees. He signed a new executive order requiring agencies across the government to get rid of hundreds of them. The White House, in a statement to Reveal, said, "A lot of these committees are no longer necessary, and they waste money." The total number is supposed to drop from about 1,000 to 350.
Al Letson: Thanks to Reveal's Elizabeth Shogren for that story.
Al Letson: As Elizabeth said, the government is planning to slash the number of federal advisory committees by 65 percent. We wanted to know how that could affect places that most decision makers in Washington never see up close. We're talking about low income communities that agencies like the EPA are supposed to protect. So, we got in touch with Dr. Sacoby Wilson.
Sacoby Wilson: I'm an Associate Professor with the School of Public Health, University of Maryland-College Park.
Al Letson: Dr. Wilson works with communities of color across the country, helping them gather scientific data about the risks they face from pollution in their air, water and land. As a kid, he saw firsthand what it means to live in a town that has more than its fair share of pollution.
Sacoby Wilson: My father was a pipefitter, so my dad worked at nuclear power plants. He worked at coal-fired power plants. He worked at a lot of these pollution-intensive facilities that I fight against now as an adult, as a scholar, as an advocate.
Sacoby Wilson: Also, where I grew up in Vicksburg, Mississippi, we lived near a highway. We also lived near a little, small concrete facility... rock facility... we lived near the sewage treatment plant, and we also lived near a landfill. So, I came from a community where there were environmental hazards near us, and my father, due to his occupation, was exposed to environmental hazards, and he asbestosis. And so, that's what really got me engaged in this work to really understand how the environment impacts human health, and that's when I knew that I wanted to do environmental justice in my career.
Al Letson: Dr. Wilson eventually was asked to serve on a committee at the EPA most people call NEJAC. That stands for the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council.
Sacoby Wilson: So, our job is to convene as a group, to provide feedback to the EPA on what it should be doing to address environmental justice issues, and making sure that the EPA is integrating environmental justice throughout its programs, divisions and initiatives.
Al Letson: So when you joined this committee, Obama was still in office, correct?
Sacoby Wilson: That's correct.
Al Letson: What was the difference between what you saw in the Obama administration and what you see now in the Trump administration?
Sacoby Wilson: So the culture in the Obama administration was different. The atmosphere was an atmosphere of collaboration. You had robust initiatives to address environmental justice. You had more effort. You just had a different type of energy.
Sacoby Wilson: And also, one of the biggest sort of achievements on the Obama administration that was really going to be beneficial to communities of color impact on environmental justice was the Clean Power Plan.
Al Letson: That was Obama's plan to slash greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
Sacoby Wilson: That initiative was a huge sort of win on the Obama administration, and then when you fast forward to the Trump administration... oh, the Clean Power Plan. We're not doing that. Environmental justice? Hmm. It's not really important to us. Scott Pruitt at the time... he never showed up to our NEJAC meetings. It just became clear that environmental justice wasn't really a priority of the administration, and particularly, it wasn't an important part of the agenda of Scott Pruitt, the previous EPA Administrator.
Al Letson: And so, now the Trump administration is saying that they are going to end a lot of these specialized committees. What does that mean?
Sacoby Wilson: I think it's highly problematic. I mean, what we're doing now, we're going backwards. Some of our most vulnerable people in the country... we've got immigrants, we are poor folks, we have indigenous peoples; we have folks who are burdened by all types of hazards, from incinerators to the chemical plants to the landfills, to concrete plants, to refineries, to power plants. Those folks are overburdened. Those folks are vulnerable. And with this administration, there will not be a voice to really fight for the people.
Al Letson: So recently, you were in Alabama working on environmental justice issues there. What exactly were you doing, and what was the connection with the community?
Sacoby Wilson: I was invited to come in as a academic expert to work with a community in Uniontown, Alabama. Uniontown's community has about 2,000 residents. Their annual household income is less than $12,000. I'm going to say it again. Their annual household income is less than $12,000. They have a landfill that takes in trash from 33 states. They're also taking in 4 million tons of coal ash.
Sacoby Wilson: Several years ago, there was a spill in Kingston, Tennessee, and they took all that coal ash from this primarily white community, and they dumped it in the black community in Uniontown. And so, this landfill is built on top of a old cemetery, black cemetery, and one of the most egregious issues in the community... most of the time when you flush your toilet, your waste water goes to a sewage treatment plant and gets treated before it's discharged. When they flush their toilet, the waste water goes to a containment pond, a lagoon, and then they spray the liquid waste on the ground. Yes. They are spraying human waste on the ground in Uniontown.
Sacoby Wilson: So, what we've been doing is trying to bring science to the people, and help them collect their own data, so they can fight against those pollution emissions... just training folks on how to use science for action.
Al Letson: I'm still just speechless about the description that you just laid out about what's happening in Alabama, and I think that that is part of the issue when it comes to environmental justice... is that most people across the country have no idea that these type of things are going on in communities of color.
Sacoby Wilson: No, I agree. It's happening everywhere. They're overburdened by hazards. They don't have good access to infrastructure like parks, green space, and food, and that's why what's happening with the EPA... that's why what's happening under this administration is egregious and it's problematic, and we need to do more to stop the executive rollbacks, and we need to do more to make sure this administration knows that science is not just important in general, science is important for these communities that we are leaving behind.
Al Letson: When Trump issued the executive order ending these advisory committees, he wasn't just pointing at yours. There's a lot of them, right?
Sacoby Wilson: Yes, that's correct. There's a number of advisory committees that are on the chopping block. So, I think, in general, this executive order is just an attack on science, and the importance of science in public debate, and the importance of science is policymaking. Without science, we wouldn't have the Clean Air Act. Without science, we wouldn't have the Clean Water Act. Think about where we would be at if we didn't have the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. Think about where would be at if we didn't have a Superfund law. That science has been very important in advancing public health and advancing protection of the environment.
Sacoby Wilson: So, this anti-science climate is not just problematic for Americans in general, it's very problematic for those who are most vulnerable.
Al Letson: You represent all of these vulnerable communities as a scientist. What do you think the most pressing environmental danger is for those communities right now?
Sacoby Wilson: I think for most of these communities, it's the same issues that's most pressing for all Americans and citizens of this Earth: climate change. And what I mean by that is, climate change is going to impact us all, but what climate change does... it reveals environmental injustice, right? If you're living in North Carolina where there's a lot of industrial hog farms, not only are you already impacted by the odors from all those farms... ammonia, hydrosulfide, [inaudible] compounds... things that can burn your eyes and throat... you have runoff already that can get into your water supply, because remember, most people in rural areas, they're on well water.
Sacoby Wilson: But then you bring a hurricane through... people have to escape through a toxic soup of animal waste and human waste, and don't have access to water. Look at what happened with Hurricane Maria, right? That's an environmental justice catastrophe. Look at over 3,000 people died because of that hurricane. You had people who were trying to drink water from wells from Superfund sites. That is a major crisis. Climate change is the biggest threat to human health. Climate change is the biggest threat to folks who are already disproportionately burdened by hazards.
Sacoby Wilson: So, if we address climate change and focus on climate change through a lens of equity and social justice, we will not only protect the most vulnerable, but we also will help our other folks who are not vulnerable.
Al Letson: Here's a question that we struggle with in the news business. How do we make people care? Because everything that you just said, I know to be true. I know that climate change is the number one thing, environmentally, that we should be worried about and that we should be taking action now. I know that time is limited in how we can make change. I know that the only way we do it is if we figure out a way to make everyday people care about it. And yet still, we tell story after story after story, and we do our best to get that word out, and yet there is no change within the nation. There's no visible change, at least, within everyday people's lives.
Sacoby Wilson: Yeah, I think that's a really good question. For me, you have to talk about issues that matter to folks. When we talk about climate change and climate science a lot, we talk about the big S, right? The predictions, the temperature trends over time. Let's talking more about the little S in that science; let's link it to food, faith, family, health and jobs.
Sacoby Wilson: Make it more local. Make it more where you live, where you work, where you play, where you learn, where you pray. And that's how you talk about climate... how is climate change going to impact food? How is climate change going to impact my health? How is climate change going to impact my job opportunities, and my pocketbook? How is climate change going to impact the health in my family, my elderly mother who is shut in, who doesn't have air conditioning? So, remember, heat waves are hell for the poor and the elderly. Talk about those issues when it comes to health... the fact that many people of color, low-income people of color, spend so much money of their monthly income on their energy bill.
Sacoby Wilson: Why is that a climate change issue? Well, if you had more heat issues, right... what it means is you're going to have use your air conditioning more and more, and your energy bill is going to go up. Make it more local. Make it more checkbook.
Al Letson: Being that we are living in these days where there's a war against science right when we probably need it the most, with climate change really kicking in... I'm just curious if you have any hope.
Sacoby Wilson: Well, not to be crass about it, being a black man dealing with racism, I got to stay hopeful. As a scholar and an advocate and activist in the environmental justice movement, we're all about hope. We're fighting for social justice, right? We're fighting for health justice. We're fighting for economic justice. We're fighting for the next generation. How can you put America first if you don't put your kids first? We're fighting for our children.
Sacoby Wilson: So, you have to be hopeful in this movement if you want to make sure the next generation is not living with the same levels of pollution that we're living with.
Al Letson: That's Sacoby Wilson. Thank you so much for talking to us.
Sacoby Wilson: Thank you.
Al Letson: Like Dr. Wilson, Jeff Alson has spent his career trying to reduce emissions from cars. But after decades of progress at the EPA, he saw the Trump administration put everything into reverse.
Jeff Alson: I've called it the most spectacular regulatory flip-flop in history. I've never seen anything like it.
Al Letson: That's next on Reveal.
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Speaker 1: Support for Reveal comes from Stanford Children's Health and the new Bass Childhood Cancer Center, designed to deliver the best possible care to even more patients with cancer and blood disorders, with dedicated play spaces for kids and teens, positive pressure ventilation that keeps every room cleaner to prevent infections, and physical and occupational therapy on the same floor. The center lets kids be kids to promote better recovery.
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Al Letson: It's time for Al's podcast picks, and if you like investigative storytelling, and I'm assuming you do because you're listening to me right now, check out Motive, from WBEZ Chicago.
Al Letson: They've just released a new season about a group of young women seeking justice in Spain. The story starts with a college student's death while studying abroad, and the questions that surround the man she was with the night she died, and goes on to look at allegations of sexual assault, why was there silence for almost a decade, and what happens next?
Al Letson: You can listen to Motive, from WBEZ Chicago, wherever you get your podcasts.
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.
Al Letson: Today, we're looking at the Trump administration is turning its back on science and scientists. It's something that Jeff Alson has experienced firsthand. He worked at the EPA for 40 years. That's more than 10,000 days on the job, and out of all of those, there's one day that stands out.
Jeff Alson: Well, in July of 2011, I got to spend 10 minutes in the Oval Office with President Obama.
Al Letson: 10 minutes celebrating a deal, a deal that Jeff helped put together, one the President had just announced hours earlier.
President Obama: I am extraordinarily proud to be here today with the leaders of the world's largest auto companies and the folks who represent auto workers all across America.
Al Letson: Next to Obama as he spoke were shiny new cars from companies like Ford, Fiat Chrysler, and GM, and it was a rare sight to see the leaders of these car companies applauding new government regulations. They nodded as the President talked about how this agreement would double fuel efficiency standards.
President Obama: This agreement on fuel standards represents the single most important step we've ever taken as a nation to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.
Al Letson: The new rule would require cars to nearly double fuel efficiency to more than 54 miles a gallon by 2025, and for the first time ever, there would be a cap on greenhouse gas emissions. Over time, the amount of carbon dioxide released into the air would be cut by 6 billion tons. That's about what the U.S. produces in a year.
Al Letson: Jeff's role in all this? He was an engineer at the EPA's National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He helped pull the data, crunch the numbers, and make the models that created this new standard.
Jeff Alson: It was the proudest day of my career. We were going to make history, and it was a done deal, and now it's all coming undone without any sound or defensible rationale for undoing it.
Newsanchor: The Trump administration is about to roll back one of President Barack Obama's signature policies on the environment. The move comes from the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. That's Scott Pruitt.
Scott Pruitt: As you know, I'm here to announce that those standards that were set, that we are obligated to evaluate... we are determining... I am determining that those standards are inappropriate and should be revised.
Jeff Alson: I've called it the most spectacular regulatory flip-flop in history. I've never seen anything like it. For a regulatory body to say, "Forget everything we told you for seven years about the numbers. We were completely wrong. Now, believe us now."
Al Letson: For Jeff, it felt personal... years of his work coming undone.
Jeff Alson: It really does feel awful. It feels like a good chunk of my career was kind of taken away from me.
Al Letson: And the agency he devoted his career to suddenly seemed to be moving backwards, turning away from its original mandate to tackle the nation's biggest pollution problems.
TV ad: People start pollution. People can stop it.
Al Letson: Back in the '60s when Jeff was a kid, pollution was in the news pretty much every day. In 1969, an oil spill hit Santa Barbara. It was the largest one the nation had ever seen. The Cuyahoga River in Ohio was so polluted, it caught on fire. New York City and Los Angeles were choking in smog. It was impossible not to notice how bad things were.
President Nixon: The great question of the '70s is, shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make our peace with nature, and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land, and to our water?
Al Letson: That's Richard Nixon, giving his State of the Union speech back in 1971, not long after he signed the executive order creating the EPA.
President Nixon: Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions. It has become a common cause of all the people of this country. It is a cause of particular concern to young Americans.
Al Letson: In 1975, the first emissions standards for cars went into effect.
Speaker 16: This is a device you've probably heard a lot about lately, and you're undoubtedly going to hear a great deal more about it. It's called a catalytic converter.
Al Letson: The catalytic converter is a part of the car's exhaust system, and it dramatically reduces tailpipe emissions. They work so well, car makers still use them today, but back in the '70s, companies didn't want the government telling them how to design their cars.
Jeff Alson: And when the private sector saw that EPA had stood toe-to-toe with what, at that time, was the most powerful corporate sector in the world... the auto industry back then was the Google and Apple of today... that sent the message to the rest of the private sector that EPA was going to be a major player. It was not legitimate for government to weigh in on how their cars should be designed.
Al Letson: At the time, Jeff was a young, idealistic engineer, and he was impressed.
Jeff Alson: I wanted to do something to try to help make the world a little bit better place, and I was in engineering school and getting straight As, but thinking I didn't really want to go work for a large corporation and design the next little widget or something.
Al Letson: So, he joined the EPA in 1978. By then, Congress had already put in place the nation's first fuel efficiency standard. Bureaucrats called it CAFE, short for Corporate Average Fuel Economy.
Speaker 18: And when I bought my new car, I checked the other window sticker, too, the new one that shows the approximate gas mileage you'll get in city traffic and on the highways.
Al Letson: As green as it may seem now, the new mileage rule had little to do with the environment, and everything to do with the energy crisis of the 1970s. The original CAFE standard was created after oil-producing nations in the Middle East embargoed the U.S. Gas prices spiked, and people had to wait in long lines at the pump. Congress acted, forcing car makers to make more efficient cars that would save consumers money.
Al Letson: Fuel efficiency standards continued to increase, but by the late '80s, they plateaued, and stayed that way for two decades.
Jeff Alson: There's just certain times where EPA is not going to be able to do the type of things that those of us who work there want to do, because there are competing priorities, and for whatever sets of reasons, maybe the environmental priorities just aren't as high.
Al Letson: But even though there was little political will to improve CAFE standards, Jeff and his colleagues kept pushing research forward, testing ways to make cars more efficient. Then, in 2008, another crisis came along.
Newsanchor 2: The U.S. auto industry is in dire straits, and its leaders are asking Congress for billions of dollars in loans.
Newsanchor 3: When petrol prices rose earlier this year, Detroit was left with hundreds of thousands of unsold vehicles. Its demand for a bailout reflects its inability to adapt to new conditions, and some say, to its putting profits over efficiency.
President Obama: One of the challenges we've confronted from the beginning of this administration is what to do with the state of the struggling auto industry.
Al Letson: Negotiating a bailout with the car companies gave Obama leverage. The federal government stepped in with emergency loans, but then later mandated that companies make cars that go much further on a gallon of gas. That's how that Obama CAFE standard was born.
President Obama: By 2025, the average fuel economy of their vehicles will nearly double to almost 55 miles per gallon.
Al Letson: But what Obama saw as doing the right thing, President Trump saw as an attack on car makers.
Jeff Alson: Three months after President Trump took office, he came out to Ypsilanti, Michigan.
President Trump: Thank you very much. It is truly great to be back here in Michigan. Great.
Jeff Alson: He gave a major speech there and invited CEOs of several of the major automobile companies. I knew the UAW was there. It was kind of a photo opportunity speech kind of event.
President Trump: I kept my word. The assault on the American auto industry, believe me, is over. It's over. Not going to happen anymore.
Jeff Alson: Interestingly, nobody from EPA's Ann Arbor facility ten miles away was even invited to come, which that was kind of like the first signal to us that things were going to be a lot different.
Al Letson: A year and a half after Trump traveled to Ypsilanti, his administration announced it was proposing its very own CAFE standards. The Trump plan would require cars to get 37 miles per gallon instead of 54 and a half under Obama. Trump will also allow cars to emit higher levels of greenhouse gases. Normally, Jeff's team at the EPA would be doing the engineering analysis for a big proposal like this. Instead, the Trump administration worked only with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA.
Jeff Alson: We were basically completely cut out of that analysis, and that's where kind of the science comes into it. We know more about this than NHTSA. We'd been working with them for seven years, and then all of a sudden, a new administration comes in and we were completely cut out. I think they basically knew the answer that the White House wanted, and they were going to cook the books by twisting every knob in that model... all the assumptions they could... to get their bottom line results that the White House wanted. And it really made me kind of ashamed and appalled.
Al Letson: EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler talked to Bloomberg News about why he thinks their plan is better than Obama's.
Andrew Wheeler: We have a goal, not just of energy efficiency, but we also have a goal of safety, highway safety, saving lives.
Al Letson: So, how would cars that burn more gas and create more pollution end up saving lives? Jeff took a look at how the Transportation Department came up with that, and he couldn't believe what he found. DOT is assuming that people will drive less because less fuel efficient cars will cost them more at the pump, and with people driving less, DOT says, fewer people will die in car accidents. Jeff says the government's own data doesn't back that up. He calls their logic the case of the fantastical disappearing miles.
Jeff Alson: There's no rationale or justification anywhere. It's not in their documents, it's not in the economic literature. It doesn't pass the common sense laugh test.
Al Letson: The details get pretty wonky, and we did ask the EPA and NHTSA to explain them, but they wouldn't talk to us; neither would the White House. We did talk to a couple other experts, and they agree with Jeff's bottom line.
Jeff Alson: It's the most spectacular modeling blunder I've ever seen in my 40 year career. It wasn't just that they put their thumb on the scale... they jumped up and down on the scale until they broke the scale.
Al Letson: Jeff decided he couldn't stay with the EPA. He quit in 2018 before the proposal was released to the public.
Jeff Alson: I consciously made the decision and talked to a couple of friends, and said, "I'm actually thinking I might be able to have more of an impact on the outside than I'm going to be able to have on the inside."
Al Letson: Later, Jeff spoke out at a public hearing at a large hotel conference hall in Michigan. A bunch of his former colleagues were there, mostly people who worked at NHTSA. Jeff accused them of cooking the books and creating the most dishonest technical analysis he'd ever seen. Most of them sat quietly in their seats; it was very little back and forth.
Jeff Alson: Right after, or about an hour after the hearing panel, I went to the men's restroom, and lo and behold, as I'm standing at a urinal, who should come in behind me and stand at the next urinal but one of the staffers at NHTSA, who I had known for the previous seven years, and it was a awkward moment. And I can't even remember exactly what prompted me, but I decided I was going to say something, and I said, "So, you guys are going to have to change that assumption about people driving less under the rollback, right? It's just so bizarre." And he looked over at me, he paused... he looked over at me and he goes, "I can't talk about that."
Al Letson: In July, four major car makers dealt a blow to the Trump administration's proposed rollbacks of car emissions standards. Ford, Volkswagen, Honda, and BMW struck a deal with California, the nation's largest car market. They agreed to meet a mileage standard which is almost as strict as Obama's.
Al Letson: The Trump administration responded by having the Justice Department open an antitrust inquiry into those four car companies, and in January, the administration closed its investigation, saying no laws were violated. It's still working on finalizing the details of a mileage rollback.
Al Letson: That story was produced by Najib Aminy and Elizabeth Shogren. The White House wouldn't talk to us for this story, and neither would the EPA Administrator, but we did get an interview with a former high-ranking Trump official, who sees things differently from Jeff.
Mandy G.: I would say that this administration has continued to fulfill the mission of EPA in a very meaningful way.
Al Letson: That's next on Reveal.
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.
Al Letson: We've been talking about the Trump administration sidelining science. When we first aired this show in September, we tried for weeks to get interviews with the White House, the EPA, and the Department of Transportation. All of our requests were denied. But a former Trump administration appointee from a key EPA office did agree to talk with us.
Mandy G.: My name is Mandy Gunasekara. I am currently the founder of a pro-Trump non-profit called Energy 45, where the mission is to educate the public on the energy, environment and economic successes of the Trump administration. Prior to that, and most recently, I was the Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Al Letson: How long were you at the EPA?
Mandy G.: Almost two years. Let's see, a year and eleven months.
Al Letson: A lot of things happened in that year and eleven months. What are you most proud of accomplishing there?
Mandy G.: Two big things. One is the President's announcement to get out of the Paris Climate Accord. And the other thing, too, is the repeal and replace of the Clean Power Plan. From my perspective, the last administration strained the interpretation of what EPA's respective responsibility was under the pertinent provisions of the Clear Air Act, and we fixed that.
Al Letson: Mandy's talking about doing away with President Obama's two biggest climate change initiatives. The Paris Climate Accord is a plan to bring the whole world together to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and the Clean Power Plan, as we said earlier in the show, would have required states to use cleaner electricity, cutting down on the use of coal.
Al Letson: So, that made me ask her, why would you consider reviving coal as an accomplishment when you're at the Environmental Protection Agency?
Mandy G.: Because it's not within the mandate, and especially under the Clean Air Act, to get rid of a particular industry, and frankly, the coal industry has been very successful in implementing and reducing emissions.
Al Letson: But it's still the dirtiest form of energy there is out there, and we have other forms that could do the exact same thing, that are not as dirty, and are also more cost-efficient.
Al Letson: One thing I wanted to push back on a little bit is that earlier you said that the EPA was putting an industry out of business, and that's not what they're supposed to do. But from the very beginning, the EPA has said that they are under no obligation to promote agriculture or commerce. The only critical obligation is to protect and enhance the environment.
Mandy G.: Yeah, and I don't disagree with it, and there's different ways that you can go about implementing that, and a lot of the work that we did under this administration continued to move the ball where you balance this need of energy source to fuel the economy, while ensuring important protections to reduce pollutants that are a byproduct of the combustion process don't get out in the air and harm the public health or the surrounding environment.
Al Letson: But let's move forward to the Paris climate change treaty. Nearly every country in the world has signed on to the Paris agreement. The overwhelming majority of scientists say that climate action like this is essential to avert catastrophe. Why did you think the Paris agreement was a bad idea?
Mandy G.: One, it was ineffective. It was going to cost billions of dollars. And it also was going to impede the President's deregulatory initiative that was important to unleashing the economic potential that we've enjoyed for the first two and a half years of his administration.
Al Letson: The question I have for you is, if you think it was ineffective, what would be effective? Because what I keep thinking about is that scientists are saying that if we do not take action, we are going to have a catastrophe, that everything is going to kind of fall apart. And so, the question I have for you is, if the Paris agreement wasn't enough, what do you think we need to be doing instead?
Mandy G.: I think that's a really good question. The best thing we can do is export the technological advancements that we have achieved in this country to the rest of the world.
Al Letson: Mandy, that is so passive. That's like saying, "Okay, so we're going to hand out this Band-Aid while there's a huge wound that is continuing to bleed out." Band-Aids aren't going to save us at this point.
Mandy G.: I don't think that it's passive at all. I think, more importantly, it's actually effective, and you can measure the effectiveness of it just in the relative number of greenhouse gas emission reductions that have occurred in the United States, versus places like Germany and France, and then if you look at what's going on in China and India.
Al Letson: Yes, the U.S. is scaling back, but the U.S. has historically been the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. We lead the world in greenhouse gas reduction because of organizations like the EPA. That was started because a river was on fire, literally, which meant we had to put in place some regulations in order to make sure that this type of thing wouldn't happen again.
Mandy G.: Yeah, you're exactly right. Things were bad in the '70s.
Al Letson: When I was growing up, I remember that in Los Angeles, there was a smog so thick in Los Angeles that at times, it would be like a fog. It doesn't happen the same way it was when I was a kid in the '70s and the '80s.
Al Letson: What I'm saying is, is that the reason why that is happening is because of regulation. And when you look at what the Trump administration is doing with deregulation, and really taking resources away from the EPA, and making decisions that many former EPA administrators, both Democrat and Republican, say are ignoring science or twisting it.
Mandy G.: So, I would say that this administration has continued to fulfill the mission of EPA in a very meaningful way. And so, we, the agency, have this mission set before us where we use specific responsibility assigned to us by Congress, laid out in those relative statutes, to continue to clean up the air in a very substantive way, which we have.
Al Letson: Your background is law. You're a lawyer, correct?
Mandy G.: Yes.
Al Letson: So, when you were at the EPA, you did away with a panel of experts who advised on soot. And from our reporting, we've heard from several people from the EPA that they are being pushed out, or that the panels that they are working on are on the chopping block now. And so, the question is, is the EPA ignoring science? Or, if they're not ignoring the science, how can they be listening and following to it if they're getting rid of all the people with the scientific expertise?
Mandy G.: So, the agency isn't getting rid of all the people with relative scientific expertise, and I would say in that particular instance, we have a federally mandated committee called the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, CASAC, and this particulate matter, or as you referred to it, soot, sub-committee was a part of that. And so, decisions were made to get rid of redundancies, essentially.
Mandy G.: And I would just say this, too... some of the scientists who were on some of these sub-committees, frankly, had gotten a little bit out of control and made it impossible to come to decisions in timely bases.
Al Letson: But a lot of those academics are being replaced with people who are closer to industry. The Clean Air Science Advisory Committee you just mentioned is led by Tony Cox, who said that air pollution does not harm people. He's leading the committee for clear air science, and he says that air pollution doesn't harm people. It seems like people who are closer to the industries that the EPA is supposed to be regulating have been brought closer in, and their view of the EPA does not sound like it's in line with what you said the EPA should be about.
Mandy G.: So, I would say this... he's one member of a board that has a number of members. That's one perspective, one representative, and I would say-
Al Letson: He's not just one member, though. He leads it. I mean, that's a huge problem. He leads it.
Mandy G.: So, I would say... one, we do respect the science. And as a whole, the agency disagrees with air pollutants not harming people. I understand what he said is offensive to you, and I understand the perspective, but that is one small, tiny piece in what actually goes into all of this, and I think focusing on that is a bit disingenuous when, when you look at the work that we're actually doing, the tangible actions that this administration is taking, it's completely inconsistent and different than what this one person has said.
Al Letson: What he said is not offensive to me. What he said is not true.
Mandy G.: I'm not disagreeing with you. I think it's not true, too. I'm not saying it's not, I just think the attention it's getting takes away from focusing on the good work that we're actually doing to ensure there are adequate help-based protections in place to continue to fulfill the mission of the agency.
Al Letson: Earlier in the show, we heard that President Trump is rolling back clean car standards put in place by President Obama. Now, the Obama rules would have reduced greenhouse gas emissions significantly more than Trump's plan.
Mandy G.: But the problem is that they were premised on people buying electric vehicles and a lot of cars that were cost-prohibitive to the majority of Americans out there. And so, you would have this problem where there's this zero emission vehicle out there, but the majority of Americans can't afford to drive it.
Al Letson: You're saying that the Obama administration's assertion that people were going to buy more electric cars, basically, is flawed. Am I right in that?
Mandy G.: Yeah.
Al Letson: The one thing that I would say is that car companies said that they could meet the standards. Honda, for example, said don't roll back the standards.
Mandy G.: The standards have been adjusted to comport with reality. And I would just say this... what is the point of having some environmental standard that looks good in paper, but it has to tangible impact in the real world?
Al Letson: Last question: I just keep thinking that if we don't make some kind of drastic move, that five to 10 years from now, getting climate change under control is not going to be possible. If the United States doesn't step up as the leader of the world, I'm just wondering what kind of world we're going to have.
Mandy G.: So I would say this... the United States is already a leader, and so I think-
Al Letson: I won't argue with you on that. I guess my point would be, we are seeing climate change happen all over the world. And if America is the leader... I'm not going to debate that with you... but if America is the leader in it, then clearly, that's not enough. What can we do?
Mandy G.: You're not going to like this answer, but it's doing what we're doing now. The United States leads the world in greenhouse gas emission reductions because of the increased role of natural gas, alongside improved efficiency in how we generate power in this country. And that's very meaningful, and that's something that should and could be embraced internationally. And I would say a lot of the conversations around climate change is... it's hyperbolic.
Mandy G.: And I do think that talking about climate change and figuring out ways to continue to improve our trajectory in that space is important, but it's not this existential threat that if we don't do something drastic today, it's going to result in some catastrophic future. One, I don't believe that's the case, and the science that is the latest and greatest science, from the people who think most critically about that, doesn't lend itself to those outcomes, either.
Al Letson: Mandy Gunasekara, thank you so much for talking to me. I appreciate it.
Mandy G.: Yeah, likewise.
Al Letson: Mandy Gunasekara worked for the EPA under the Trump administration. Joining me again is Reveal science reporter Elizabeth Shogren, and Elizabeth, the last thing that Mandy said is that the latest and greatest science supports her view that climate change isn't going to result in some catastrophic future. Did Mandy get that right?
Elizabeth Shogr...: No, Al, she didn't. In fact, the latest and greatest science, which comes out of the United Nations' inter-governmental panel on climate change, shows that there's a really heavy lift for the people of the planet to respond to the challenge of climate change to avoid dangerous effects, and that group this fall said, "In order to avoid dangerous climate change, we're going to have cut greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030."
Al Letson: So Mandy is misrepresenting the science. President Trump does that too, though, right? I mean, he rejects the science that people cause climate change.
Elizabeth Shogr...: That's right. But he's also starting to try to tout his green credentials. This summer, he gave a whole speech about the environment, and in late August, he told reporters at the G-7 press conference that he's an environmentalist.
Al Letson: So, what's behind this?
Elizabeth Shogr...: Climate change has taken off as an issue, and not just with Democrats... swing voters and even some Republicans, like the youngest Republicans and the highest educated Republicans. One recent poll showed that three in four American voters want to see the government step in to limit carbon emissions, including a majority of Republicans. Six in 10 voters believe U.S. climate policy is seriously on the wrong track.
Al Letson: So, as President Trump heads towards the election, is he just trying to rebrand himself as an environmentalist, or is he changing his actions, too?
Elizabeth Shogr...: Well, in the State of the Union, he talked about planting a lot of trees, but he didn't even mention climate change, and in three years, he's racked up far more rollbacks of environmental protections than any previous President.
Al Letson: Our lead producers this week are Elizabeth Shogren and Najib Aminy. Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis edited the show. Our production manager is Mwende Hinojosa. Original score and sound designed by the dynamic duo... J-Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando "My Man, Yo" Arruda. They had engineering help from Amy Mustafa. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our Editor-in-Chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is my Camarado, Lightning.
Al Letson: Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.
Al Letson: Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.
Speaker 22: From PRX.