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EPA integrity board clears Pruitt in Sierra Club complaint

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has been cleared in a complaint made by the Sierra Club over his March comments on climate change.

Pruitt said in an interview with CNBC on March 9 that he did not "agree that [carbon dioxide is] a primary contributor to the global warming that we see." In a complaint to the EPA's Scientific Integrity Officer, the Sierra Club alleged that Pruitt's remarks violated the agency's Scientific Integrity Policy.

After reviewing the complaint, the Scientific Integrity Committee has cleared Pruitt of any wrongdoing. The board focused on a portion of the policy that encourages EPA staff to speak up if they disagree with the scientific data, interpretations or conclusions that will be used for an agency decision.

"The freedom to express one's opinion about science is fundamental to EPA's Scientific Integrity Policy even (and especially) when that point of view might be controversial," Thomas Sinks, director of the Office of the Science Advisor, wrote in a letter on behalf of the panel that reviewed the complaint. "The [policy] explicitly protects differing opinions."

Referring to Pruitt's comments, Sinks wrote that the EPA chief was calling for more debate, review and analysis of the contributors to global warming as a precursor to any future agency decision. This "expression of opinion" was consistent with the integrity policy, and the administrator did not suppress or alter the agency's scientific findings.

The EPA's Scientific Integrity Committee is made up of appointed officials representing each of the agency's program offices and regions and serves as the agency's expert on integrity matters. The officials serving on the committee were appointed prior to the Trump administration. The committee reports to the EPA's Inspector General, which is an independent office of the agency that has funding provided directly from Congress, rather than the EPA. Sinks and an additional integrity officer involved in the report, Francesca Grifo, were appointed in 2015 and 2013, respectively.

The Sierra Club said the board's response to the complaint was not originally sent to the group, but was instead "leaked" by agency staff to two different conservative media outlets, the Washington Free Beacon and the Washington Examiner. Both outlets published stories on the findings Aug. 1, and the Free Beacon's story was issued on official EPA letterhead as a news release sent to media, including S&P Global Market Intelligence. The Sierra Club first learned of the board's findings from those stories.

In a statement, Sierra Club questioned the decision to bypass sending the letter back to Elena Saxonhouse and Joanne Spalding, the group's attorneys who made the complaint. Saxonhouse dismissed the board's findings and said Pruitt's statements were a "politically motivated attempt to obfuscate basic facts."

"Unfortunately, this letter effectively lets Pruitt off the hook for deceiving the American public regularly in high profile contexts," Saxonhouse said.

The EPA said in a statement that the agency is pleased with the board's findings.

"The story here [is] the findings of this independent review panel, which states that Administrator Pruitt has the freedom to express his opinion and that freedom is a 'fundamental principle to EPA's Scientific Integrity Policy,"' said EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman.