Last December, prominent climate change denier Steve Milloy mingled with top Interior Department officials at an agency holiday party in Washington, at one point posing for a photo with Secretary David Bernhardt under the skull of a moose that hangs over the agency chief’s office fireplace.
That same day, Dec. 10, Milloy also participated in an invite-only public policy roundtable with Bernhardt at Interior’s headquarters. According to an email Milloy later sent another agency political appointee, he and Bernhardt at some point discussed the agency’s push to limit the types of scientific studies that can be used in crafting regulation.
A former tobacco and coal lobbyist, Milloy served on President Donald Trump’s transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency and has taken credit for EPA’s proposed science “transparency” rule that would block certain peer-reviewed scientific studies from the rulemaking process and give more weight to industry-backed research.
“The Secretary suggested I offer to assist you however I can on [Interior’s] science transparency initiative,” Milloy wrote in a Dec. 12 email to Susan Combs, then the department’s assistant secretary for policy, management and budget. “I was on the EPA transition team and have been the driving force in science transparency at EPA.”
Combs, a former Texas comptroller who once likened proposed Endangered Species Act listings to “incoming Scud missiles” and has a long history of vehemently opposing Interior Department actions, responded less than an hour later to say she’d be “happy to chat.” Her staff carved an hour out of her schedule the following week to sit down with Milloy, who has made a career of attacking and trolling scientists and denying well-established science, including that air pollution kills people.
HuffPost obtained the emails via a public records request, and they are the first indication that Milloy may have played a role in crafting Interior’s proposed rule, which closely resembles EPA’s ongoing effort. Dubbed the “Promoting Open Science” rule, Interior’s measure is “designed to increase transparency in scientific data, reproducibility in studies, and rigorous peer review of scientific findings,” according to an order Bernhardt signed in September 2018. But the policy, which Interior is working to codify as a formal rule, would effectively prohibit the agencies from using scientific studies that don’t make public their raw data ― a move that rules out a lot of peer-reviewed research.
Interior forwarded its proposal to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review in mid-February, The Hill reported, but a draft has not yet been made public. A public comment period on the latest version of EPA’s rule, known commonly as the “secret science rule,” came to a close last month.
Conservatives have long complained about EPA’s use of what they call “secret science” to enact rules ― a phrase that Milloy is credited with coining. “The era of secret science @EPA is coming to an end,” then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt wrote in a Twitter post announcing the proposal in April 2018.
Despite what the emails reveal, the Interior Department denies that Milloy was involved in crafting its measure, or that Bernhardt encouraged him to offer to assist the agency.
“Mr. Milloy had no involvement in the development of the rule nor did he provide any recommendations,” Interior spokesman Nicholas Goodwin said via email.
Milloy did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment. But it seems unlikely that the publisher of a climate denial blog called Junk Science, who called EPA’s proposed rule “one of my proudest achievements,” would miss an opportunity to offer suggestions about Interior’s initiative. A day after landing the sit-down with Combs, he proudly shared the news with one of Bernhardt’s senior advisers, Jeff Small.
“I am meeting with Susan Combs next week re science transparency,” Milloy wrote in a Dec. 13 email.
“Thats (sic) awesome! Nice work” wrote back Small, who joined Interior’s intergovernmental and external affairs shop in October after several years working as executive director of the Congressional Western Caucus and a senior adviser to right-wing Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.).
Critics like Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy, say the efforts at EPA and Interior have nothing to do with transparency, but rather are aimed at stifling regulation to the benefit of industry. The proposed rules are significant, Roseberg said, because they would effectively block the agency from using public health impact studies that require keeping certain health data confidential.
“In a time of a pandemic, we’re saying epidemiology doesn’t matter,” he said. “Quite ironic.”
Rosenberg said Milloy’s apparent involvement in Interior’s rulemaking shows the extent to which the fossil fuel industry has “captured” federal agencies during Trump’s tenure.
The Trump administration has stacked both EPA and Interior with former staffers and lobbyists from the very industries they now regulate. Bernhardt is a former fossil fuel and agricultural lobbyist, while EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler previously worked as a lobbyist for the coal industry.
Goodwin, the Interior spokesman, said Milloy is not assisting Interior with any actions or policy initiatives. But the emails HuffPost obtained make clear that Milloy maintains a direct line of communication with at least one of Bernhardt’s top advisers, often sharing news articles and his own personal tweets.
After the December roundtable, Small emailed Milloy to thank him for attending and encouraged him to flag his social media posts about the event. “You were awesome and I thought it went very well,” Small wrote. “Look forward to future efforts.”
Milloy later sent along the below Twitter post, which Small called “awesome.”
When Milloy inquired about the photo he took with Bernhardt at the Interior Christmas party, the agency photographer offered to have it printed, signed and sent to him.
And a few days before the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) unveiled its plan at the start of this year to gut the National Environmental Policy Act, one of America’s most important environmental laws, Small sent Milloy embargoed details about the upcoming rollback and asked if he’d be willing to provide a “supportive quote.”
Milloy jumped at the opportunity, offering a glowing statement about Trump “having the courage to take on the entrenched anti‐development and swamp interests.” CEQ included it in a 28-page press release of laudatory statements.
The proposed changes to the 50-year-old law would expedite fossil fuel pipelines, highways, power plants and other major development by limiting the number of projects that require in-depth environmental assessments and setting strict review deadlines for those that do. It would also allow agencies to ignore climate change when evaluating the environmental effects of such infrastructure projects.
While opponents slammed the planned NEPA rollback as a clear attack on environmental justice ― it is low-income populations and communities of color that are disproportionately affected by major development and the mounting effects of climate change ― Milloy applauded Trump’s latest gift to the fossil fuel industry, mimicking one of the president’s stock phrases.
“YUGE WINNING!” he wrote to Twitter.