When the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rebuked its own National Weather Service bureau in Alabama for accurately forecasting that the state would see no impact from Hurricane Dorian, the incident provoked a public uproar. It was widely seen as a clumsy move by NOAA to cover for an erroneous forecast from President Donald Trump, at the expense of accurate information about an imminent weather disaster.
The incident underscored a phenomenon that scientists who work in or closely with the federal government have experienced repeatedly under Trump’s leadership: Across many federal agencies, scientific research and technical expertise has been altered, ignored or silenced when it presents impediments to the president’s agenda.
In many instances, the administration has overturned or undermined years of work by government agencies, and longtime civil servants have felt compelled either to bend to political pressure or leave the government.
The interference has been especially strong at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department, which play prominent roles protecting people and nature from industrial practices and pollution and are hotbeds of Trump’s deregulatory efforts.
“The EPA administration has demonstrated a pattern of cherry-picking scientific evidence, of ignoring rigorous scientific consensus or simply politicizing science to justify its actions,” Deborah Swackhamer, a University of Minnesota professor emerita and former chairwoman of influential EPA science advisory boards, said at a House subcommittee hearing in July. “While regulations can be affected by politics, science never should be.”
The manipulation of technical expertise can have dramatic consequences for the everyday lives of most Americans. For example, the Obama administration’s fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards for cars and light trucks were designed to nearly double the average distance passenger vehicles travel on a gallon of gas – to more than 54 miles – by 2025 and slash greenhouse gas emissions. Trump’s proposal to reverse those standards, which is not yet final, would freeze fuel economy requirements at 37 miles per gallon through model year 2026 and significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions.
The Trump administration justified its proposal with a 1,613-page technical analysis that concluded that weakening the standards would save $200 billion and thousands of lives. This contradicted a 2017 Obama-era analysis that found that those stricter standards would save nearly $100 billion. Critics inside and outside the government say this analysis is full of errors that grossly misrepresent the costs and benefits of the rollback and ignores the years of work and thousands of pages of research that went into the Obama administration’s standards.
“I’ve called it the most spectacular regulatory flip-flop in history,” said Jeff Alson, 63, a longtime EPA engineer. “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.’ ”
Alson spent seven years developing the Obama-era clean car rules. When Trump’s team started rewriting the standards, Alson and his colleagues at the EPA’s National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Michigan, were kept on the sidelines while the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration took the lead.
“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, so they could get to the bottom-line results that the White House wanted, and it really made me kind of ashamed and appalled,” Alson said.
In June 2018, the EPA’s technical team sent a 122-page email, laden with charts and graphs, to the White House, laying out fixes for what it considered errors in the highway safety agency’s analysis. After rerunning the model, the EPA team determined that the Trump proposal would be less safe and more costly than the Obama administration’s. The Trump administration continued moving forward with the proposed standards regardless, prompting the leader of the EPA team to send an email to the White House Office of Management and Budget asking that the EPA’s name and logo be removed from the analysis. This request, along with the EPA’s criticisms of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s work, went unheeded. The EPA’s name and logo remained.
The inner workings of government under Trump have been very different, according to Alson and others familiar with the process. Under President Barack Obama, Alson and other EPA engineers worked closely with officials at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on the clean car standards. They met monthly and sometimes talked daily. The EPA had the lab that tests cars’ fuel economy, a large staff of engineers and other experts, and decades of data. But under Trump, they were rarely consulted. Many months went by with no meetings or requests for technical help.
Under Obama, each agency used its own computer models to analyze the effects of the new standards. But under Trump, the highway safety agency alone did the computer modeling.
Having spent decades in government, Alson was accustomed to rolling with the punches as administrations came and went, but Trump’s reversal was unprecedented. Alson retired in April 2018, after 40 years at the EPA.
“We had made the biggest effort we had ever made to do our job the best we could ever do, and now we’re being told that we are not going to be a part of it any longer, whatsoever. That was a really big punch,” Alson said. “Also, I did have this realization that I might actually be able to be more useful on the outside in the near term.”
Alson spent the first year of his retirement trying to expose flagrant technical errors in the Trump proposal.
When administration officials testify to Congress or talk to the media about the proposed standards, they argue that under Trump’s plan, new cars would be cheaper, meaning Americans would trade in old cars for newer models with more safety features, thus saving thousands of lives. This sounds logical, Alson said, but the administration’s own data shows it accounts for only a tiny fraction of the fatalities avoided.
Instead, Alson said, most of the potential savings in lives and money – at least 97 percent – come from a faulty assumption: Under Trump’s plan, people would drive nearly 2 trillion miles less. Fewer cars on the road, the logic goes, would result in fewer accidents and hence fewer fatalities. About half of these missing miles come from the assumption that Obama’s plan would make cars so fuel-efficient that people would drive 20 percent more than they would under Trump’s proposal. Economists and EPA staff dispute these projections, saying the percentage increase is far too high and not supported by academic research.
The administration doesn’t offer a rationale for the other half, but EPA staff said those miles come from unrealistic assumptions. For example, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s analysis assumes that under Obama’s rule, auto prices would be higher, so people would buy 8,000 fewer new cars and meanwhile keep 512,000 more used cars per year. This would “erroneously inflate” the total miles traveled and fatalities, according to EPA staff.
Alson calls these projections “the fantastical disappearing miles.”
Last September, Alson signed up to speak at a public hearing in Michigan on the Trump proposal. A self-described introvert, Alson had spent his career behind the scenes, keeping his opinions to himself. The thought of publicly criticizing former colleagues and bosses was nerve-racking. He wrote and rewrote his comments about 10 times.
In the conference room of a stately Colonial-style Marriott hotel on the former grounds of the Ford Motor Co., Alson faced his former colleagues at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and EPA and let them have it. He called their work “the most biased and dishonest technical analysis” he’d ever seen.
“The mythical ‘reduced fatalities’ have nothing to do with vehicle safety or fleet turnover, but are simply due to NHTSA assuming that Americans will reduce their personal mobility by staying home and driving less,” Alson said. Officials from the EPA and highway safety agency sat quietly among the hundreds of people assembled for the hearing while he blasted them.
Afterward, Alson was in the restroom when a former colleague from the highway agency walked in and stood next to him at the urinal.
“I decided I was going to say something,” Alson recounted. “I said, ‘So, you guys are gonna have to change that assumption about people driving less under the rollback, right? It’s just so bizarre.’
“He paused. He looked over at me. He goes, ‘I can’t talk about that.’ ”
Chet France, a former EPA senior executive who works with Alson consulting for the Environmental Defense Fund, said the modeling errors are consequential because they justify a policy that would add massive amounts of additional greenhouse gas emissions and cost Americans billions of dollars at gas stations. To France, the idea that Trump’s policy would save lives and money because people would drive hundreds of billions of miles less seems “ludicrous.”
“It sounds stupid talking about it,” France said. “We keep trying to translate it into terms where it’s understandable, accessible. I don’t know if it’s doable. It’s an incredibly insidious strategy that’s working.”
The Obama administration’s technical analysis had been thoroughly reviewed by the National Research Council of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, which concluded in 2015 that it was “thorough and of high caliber.” But in addition to comments from Alson, EPA staff, states, academics and environmental groups, 11 leading economists wrote in the journal Science in December that the Trump analysis “has fundamental flaws and inconsistencies, is at odds with basic economic theory and empirical studies, is misleading, and does not improve estimates of costs and benefits of fuel economy standards beyond those in the 2016 analysis.”
No one at the EPA, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or White House has responded publicly to Alson’s critique or the 104-page public comment he wrote as a consultant for the Environmental Defense Fund. Despite repeated requests from Reveal, no one at the two agencies or the White House would agree to an interview about Alson’s criticisms.
A former EPA official who was deeply involved in the Trump rollback, Mandy Gunasekara, defended the administration’s decision to let the highway safety agency take the lead rather than having both agencies engage in parallel modeling efforts. But, contradicting Alson, Gunasekara said the EPA was “consistently engaged providing feedback.”
“It wasn’t that NHTSA was working on its own and leaving EPA in the dark,” said Gunasekara, who was the EPA’s principal deputy assistant administrator until February. She now runs a nonprofit aimed at improving Trump’s environmental image.
Gunasekara pointed out that the administration received other criticisms of its technical analysis and is responding to them as it crafts the final standards.
France, who led the effort within the EPA to write the Obama standards and retired in 2012 after 38 years at the agency, said he never experienced this kind of political interference in the hundreds of regulations he helped produce at the EPA.
“I worked for six presidents of both parties,” he said. “Without exception, we were never asked to do the wrong thing. We were always allowed to do our analyses. This is uncharted territory what we’re experiencing today.”
In July, four automakers dealt a blow to Trump’s proposal by striking a deal with California to meet standards almost as strict as Obama’s. But the Trump administration is fighting back. The Justice Department reportedly has opened an investigation into whether those companies are violating antitrust laws. Then on Sept. 19, Trump canceled a 2013 waiver that authorized California to set its own standards for greenhouse gas emissions and zero-emission vehicles. California, 22 other states and three cities have filed a lawsuit to reinstate the waiver.
The Trump administration’s final standards originally had been promised earlier this year but now are expected this fall. Critics say the delay is due to difficulties in producing analyses that would match the president’s mandate for rolling back the rule.
Gunasekara downplayed the criticisms and said the EPA and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration engineering teams have addressed the issues raised by Alson and others. “I just confirmed the fix will be reflected in the final,” Gunasekara wrote to Reveal, adding that the confirmation came from two senior people on the EPA’s team.
Alson says, “The proof will be in the pudding.” He’s standing by, ready to fact-check the final technical analysis when it’s released. Having joined hundreds of scientists and other technical experts who have left the government under Trump, Alson will be doing his work from the outside. States and environmental groups are expected to sue to block Trump’s rollback, and Alson’s analysis could play a role. Even if the Trump administration doesn’t respond to the criticisms, he supposes, perhaps the courts will.
Najib Aminy contributed to this story. It was edited by Matt Thompson and copy edited by Nikki Frick.