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White House reportedly pumps brakes on EPA's climate science debate

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White House reportedly pumps brakes on EPA's climate science debate

News outlets have been reporting that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's "red team/blue team" debate on climate science is on hold following recent conversations between agency officials and the White House, although one individual with knowledge of those conversations said the news is a bit more nuanced than that.

On Dec. 7, Administrator Scott Pruitt testified during a U.S. House of Representatives hearing that plans for the debate were proceeding smoothly and that he expected to be able to provide more details about the event in January 2018. Citing an unnamed White House official, however, E&E News on Dec. 15 broke the story that the EPA chief's proposed debate on climate science has been placed on hold, and other news outlets have since picked up on the story.

But a source who spoke to S&P Global Market Intelligence on background said Pruitt simply may have gotten a bit ahead of himself when announcing that timeline, noting that crucial details of the controversial climate debate have yet to be hashed out. President Donald Trump remains supportive of his administration hosting the red team/blue team debate, according to the source, who previously advised members of the current administration on environmental issues and remains in close contact with senior EPA officials.

The source said White House officials in recent weeks have expressed concern as to whether the EPA is the best agency to handle such a public debate. The officials are said to be considering having the White House's own Office of Science and Technology Policy, or OSTP, or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration host the event, which would pit scientist against scientist in an attempt to whittle down the arguments until a consensus is reached. That approach is similar to methods used by the national security community to test assumptions.

While both of those agencies conduct climate change science, the source suggested the OSTP might be the best venue to host the debate. That office oversees the federal government's U.S. Global Change Research Program, which recently released a comprehensive report on the science behind climate change.

Should the White House ultimately choose to place the debate under the purview of an agency other than the EPA, the source said the administration may run into difficulty because many of Trump's top cabinet positions, including some at the OSTP and NOAA, remain empty. Another possibility for hosting the debate is the White House Council on Environmental Quality, according to the source. While that agency currently lacks politically appointed leadership, Kathleen Hartnett White has been nominated as its head and her appointment currently awaits a vote in the U.S. Senate.

Another issue the White House is mulling over, according to the source, is the appropriate legal framework for conducting the debate; for instance, whether it should be held in the context of the possible reworking of the EPA's 2009 endangerment finding. The finding, which determined that greenhouse gases are a danger to public health and welfare, underpinned the EPA's authority to regulate those gases and has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Pruitt has been pressured by conservative groups, industry groups, Republican members of Congress and others to conduct a review of the endangerment finding, but he seems to have made up his mind against reopening the issue. During his testimony before the House, Pruitt said he would be replacing the Clean Power Plan with a new regulation.