The Environmental Protection Agency announced a new rule Tuesday that would stop it from relying on scientific research underpinned by confidential data in its making of regulations.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt billed the measure as a way to boost transparency for the benefit of the industries his agency regulates. But scientists and former EPA officials worry it will hamstring the agency's ability to protect public health by putting key medical and industry data off limits.
"The science that we use is going to be transparent, it's going to be reproducible," Pruitt told a gathering at the EPA.
"It's going to be able to be analyzed by those in the marketplace, and those that watch what we do can make informed decisions about whether we've drawn the proper conclusions or not," said Pruitt, who has been pursuing President Donald Trump's mission to ease the regulatory burden on business.
The EPA has for decades relied on scientific research that is rooted in confidential medical and industry data as a basis for its air, water and chemicals rules. While it publishes enormous amounts of research and data to the public, the confidential material is held back.
Business interests have argued the practice is tantamount to writing laws behind closed doors and unfairly prevents them from vetting the research underpinning the EPA's often costly regulatory requirements. They argue that if the data cannot be published, the rules should not be adopted.
But ex-EPA officials say the practice is vital.
"Other government agencies also use studies like these to develop policy and regulations, and to buttress and defend rules against legal challenges. They are, in fact, essential to making sound public policy," former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and Janet McCabe, former assistant administrator for air and water, wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times last month.
The new policy would be based on proposed legislation spearheaded by the chairman of the House Science Committee, Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who denies mainstream climate change science.
Emails obtained through a public records request last week showed that Smith or his staff met with Pruitt's staff in recent months to craft the policy. Those emails also showed that Pruitt's staff grappled with the possibility the policy would complicate things for the chemicals industry, which submits reams of confidential data to EPA regulatory programs.