Trump Administration Backs Off Plan to Scrub Climate Pages from EPA Website

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The Trump administration on Wednesday backed away from plans to take down some climate-change information from the Environmental Protection Agency’s website, which employees said had been planned for this week. But political appointees are exerting more oversight over the agency’s scientific communications.

Doug Ericksen, spokesman for the Trump team in charge at the agency, told The Hill in an interview Wednesday that officials are reviewing all “editorial” parts of the EPA’s website and discussing possible changes, not necessarily looking to take down all climate data.

“We’re looking at scrubbing it up a bit, putting a little freshener on it, and getting it back up to the public,” Ericksen, a Republican state lawmaker from Washington, told the publication. “We’re taking a look at everything on there.”

Ericksen, who could not be reached by The Washington Post for comment Wednesday, also told NPR that scientists at EPA who want to publish or present their scientific findings will need to have their work reviewed on a “case by case basis” before it can be disseminated to the public — at least temporarily. “We’ll take a look at what’s happening so that the voice coming from the EPA is one that’s going to reflect the new administration,” he said.

Such statements have raised questions about whether the incoming administration risks violating EPA’s scientific integrity policy, which encourages scientists to conduct their research “accurately, honestly, objectively, thoroughly, without political or other interference.” It also states that the EPA’s scientists can “freely exercise their right to express their personal views,” provided they make clear they aren’t speaking on behalf of the agency.

Reports began to surface this week that members of the Trump administration team working at the agency had instructed EPA staffers to remove the climate-change page from the agency’s website. Reuters reported that EPA officials had told communications employees to remove the information within days. The pages include links to emissions data and explanatory pages about global warming.

One EPA employee familiar with the requests, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because staffers have been under a gag order, told The Washington Post that Trump administration officials recently made a verbal request to managers to take down the climate portions of the EPA’s site. EPA career staffers pushed back against that plan, the employee said, saying they wanted the request in writing before anyone removed content. “Management was pushing back as far up the chain as we could get to say this was not an acceptable move and to delay it,” the employee said.

In addition, some staff members spent part of the week before Trump’s inauguration downloading “everything” from the EPA’s climate change pages so that it would be preserved no matter what happened, the employee said. The employee said some people had been asked to preserve data on physical media, such as flash drives, so that a copy existed — even though much of the scientific and emissions data on the agency’s site exists elsewhere in the government.

The site also links to scientific data on climate change, including emissions data that the agency gathers and temperature data from other federal agencies. The pages also are catalogued in places such as the Internet Archive.

“It would be a travesty,” the EPA employee said about the prospect of climate data being removed from the EPA’s website, noting that some of the information posted includes congressionally mandated data. “You’re saying the American public will have that removed from their ability to look at? That [would be] pretty unprecedented.”

The EPA’s Climate Change website dates to the Clinton administration, when it was called the EPA’s Global Warming site. The site has long served as a comprehensive portal to climate-change information, including basics about climate science and the impacts of climate change, a section on various indicators of climate change around the United States, details about the EPA’s climate change policies, and programs and guides to what individuals and local governments can do to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

But it isn’t unprecedented for the White House to exercise control over the EPA’s climate site.

During George W. Bush’s first term, new political staffers initially placed a hold on updates to the website. That was followed by a stretch in which EPA staffers were told that updates required review by White House staffers.

Given that the site contained hundreds of individual pages, this policy meant a number of pages became outdated. But aside from speeches from the Clinton administration about climate change and information about policies specific to the Clinton administration, which were removed, the content involving the science and impacts of climate change and emissions data remained untouched.

Later in Bush’s tenure, constraints on updating the site were lifted, although major additions or revisions required clearance through the public affairs office — a policy that continued into the Obama administration.

Asked about the push at several agencies to clamp down on public communications, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Wednesday: “From what I understand, is that they’ve been told within their agencies to adhere to their own policies. But that directive did not come from here.”

Asked whether some federal agencies are becoming politicized, Spicer said: “[President Trump’s] focus has been … much more focused on getting the job done than various tweets that are getting tweeted and untweeted.”

In its first week, the new administration has been scrutinizing several aspects of the EPA’s operation, including the money it provides through grants and awards. Officials temporarily suspended all grants and awards, although EPA spokeswoman Nancy Grantham informed agency employees Tuesday that the agency “is continuing to award the environmental program grants and state revolving loan fund grants to the states and tribes; and we are working to quickly address issues related to other categories of grants.”

“The goal is to complete the grants and contracts review by the close of business on Friday, January 27,” Grantham added.

The push to suspend all grants and awards sparked concern from state, local and tribal officials across the country, who rely on the funding to address air and water pollution as well as a range of other environmental threats.