Political News

EPA Emails Shed Light on Pruitt’s Plan to Debate Climate Change

Posted May 8, 2018 9:08 p.m. EDT

A new trove of documents sheds light on one of the most controversial proposals of Scott Pruitt’s first year as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency: the plan to stage public debates on the veracity of climate change, an idea that was ultimately blocked by the White House.

The emails were released as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental organization.

While the broad outlines of Pruitt’s military-style debate plan, known as “red team, blue team,” are already known, the documents show the extent to which the EPA, which is the main federal agency charged with protecting human health and the environment, worked with groups like the Heartland Institute, which holds positions on climate change that are far outside the mainstream of scientific opinion, as opposed to the agency’s own chief scientists.

The Heartland Institute is a conservative think tank that disputes the established science of human-caused climate change. Other groups included the CO2 Coalition, which promotes the idea that planet-warming carbon dioxide pollution is beneficial to humans. Neither group immediately responded to questions late Tuesday.

Academic scientists said the involvement of these and other organizations went well beyond established norms for scientific debate.

“The idea that the Heartland Institute should be dictating what EPA does on climate science is crazy,” said Benjamin D. Santer, a climate researcher at the Energy Department’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “They do not have scientific expertise.”

In a statement, Ed Chen, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, “Scientists at the EPA who know something about climate science want nothing to do with the Red Team, Blue Team exercise.”

The emails suggest that EPA’s Office of Research and Development, which does most of the agency’s science work, was not active in the discussions around the debates. In one email, a program analyst in the office, Christina Moody, wrote: “We are not involved. The Administrator is the one who wants to do this and I’m guessing his folks are putting it together.”

A spokesman for the EPA, Jahan Wilcox, declined to offer a statement on the emails.

Last December, President Donald Trump’s chief of staff, John F. Kelly, let it be known that the red team, blue team debates should be considered “dead,” according to people familiar with a White House meeting on the matter that month. After that, however, the emails show Pruitt continued setting up meetings to discuss the broad themes favored by organizations that question climate science, while not explicitly citing the idea of a debate.

“We were thinking this meeting could be purely informative in nature, and not necessarily in the context of a specific EPA exercise,” Tate Bennett, associate administrator at the EPA, wrote to Oren M. Cass, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a conservative think tank that has questioned mainstream climate science, in a Jan. 18 email. Cass could not be immediately reached for comment late Tuesday.

Pruitt first publicly floated the idea of having climate science debates — possibly televised — to a group of coal executives last June. And at least a month earlier, in May 2017, the documents show, the EPA staff was working with groups that oppose mainstream science to develop the concept.

“The ‘Red Team’ idea is superb. We will be glad to help the initiative in any way we can,” Rodney W. Nichols, an applied physicist and consultant to the CO2 Coalition, wrote on May 17 to Lincoln Ferguson, Pruitt’s senior adviser for public affairs.

In a later email to Pruitt’s chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, Mark Carr, a consultant who works for the CO2 Coalition, wrote to note that he had discussed the group’s ideas with Pruitt.

“I’m following up on face-to-face conversations my CO2 Coalition colleagues and I have had with Administrator Pruitt,” Carr wrote. “As you likely know, our experts are strongly supporting and helping organize the Red/Blue team initiative.”

Pruitt has made at times conflicting comments about rising global temperatures. He has said that the climate is changing but the extent to which human activity is to blame is unknown, that carbon dioxide is not the primary contributor, and that climate change could be beneficial to humans.

Those points were refuted last November in a sweeping climate change study issued by 13 federal agencies, which found that more than half the temperature rise in the past half-century can be attributed to human activity.