The Trump administration will soon begin a review that will question the veracity of the climate change science used by President Barack Obama's administration as the basis for environmental regulations.
The move by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to launch public debates between scientists on climate research, known as red-team, blue-team exercises, would be the first major effort by the Republican administration to challenge the long-standing scientific consensus on human-caused climate change.
Advocates who have petitioned the EPA to reverse the scientific finding underlying U.S. regulations governing greenhouse gas emissions see the proposal to scrutinize mainstream climate science as a first step in that direction.
"It's a way to survey the landscape before reopening the endangerment finding," said Myron Ebell, head of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, one of the groups that filed a petition with the agency to undo the 2009 scientific determination that formed the basis for the Obama administration's regulation of greenhouse gases.
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In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA had authority under the federal Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases from cars if the agency determined they endangered human health.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has spoken several times about the merits of opening the climate change debate up to the public. The website Climatewire on Friday cited a senior administration official, who said Pruitt plans to launch the back-and-forth scientific critiques formally.
Francis Menton, a lawyer who filed an endangerment finding petition in January on behalf of the Concerned Household Electricity Consumers Council, said Pruitt told an event at the Manhattan Institute think tank in New York on Friday that he would launch the debates in the next few months.
Menton said he asked Pruitt whether he had made a decision on reopening the endangerment finding. Pruitt said the agency is weighing its options.
The review "can create a body of scientific work that can be trustworthy and dependable to make regulatory choices and decisions," said Rob Henneke, of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a third group that filed an endangerment finding petition.
Unlike the other two, it has challenged the legality of the endangerment finding, not the science.
Environmental groups are confident that Pruitt will not be successful if he tries to undo the endangerment finding because they expect the courts will side with the scientific consensus that human beings are exacerbating climate change.
Pruitt and the EPA would need to build up a new case that shows carbon dioxide is innocuous and counter the volumes of scientific research that support the finding.
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"If he has any grasp of scientific and legal reality, he would realize that it's a fool's errand to reverse the endangerment determination," said David Doniger, climate director for the Natural Resources Defense Counsel.
"This could be a way for him to keep the right-wing fringe groups occupied and also accomplish the goal of further confusing the public debate," he said.
Ebell, who was also the transition leader of the Trump EPA, had previously been critical of Pruitt's hesitation to take on the endangerment finding because of the time and staffing it would require.
The Trump administration has not yet appointed second-tier assistant administrators to run different policy divisions of the agency.
"I think (the red-team, blue-team process) is a logical first step, but I don't think it commits the administrator to anything yet," Ebell said.