State Toxicologist, a Skeptic of Mainstream Air Pollution Science, Seeks Seat on EPA Panel

Harris County is one of 21 counties that doesn't meet ozone standards in Texas. The state is fighting the EPA on ozone regulations.
Harris County is one of 21 counties that doesn’t meet ozone standards in Texas. The state is fighting the EPA on ozone regulations.

Texas’ top toxicologist, who has accused the EPA of fear-mongering about toxic chemicals, is vying for a seat on the agency’s clean air committee.

During the one-month public comment period that ended July 20, Michael Honeycutt sent at least 100 emails to state air pollution regulators, university professors and industry representatives and lawyers asking them to send the EPA a letter supporting his nomination to the Clean Air Science Advisory Committee (CASAC), according to emails obtained by the Observer.

“I would really appreciate if you could send an email of support,” Honeycutt wrote, using identical language in a majority of the emails. “I’ve attached my CV for your information.”

CASAC, a seven-member independent body consisting of air quality and public health experts, provides science-based recommendations to the EPA on air pollution rules. Its members are appointed by the EPA administrator.

Over the last few years, the committee has come under fire for a lack of geographic diversity in its appointments. Critics, including state air regulators and Republican politicians, claim the EPA has been partial to representatives from the East and West coasts, while disfavoring candidates from the South and Midwest who may be more critical of the EPA.

“The last time this position was vacant, there were six candidates nominated, with many from the west coast and northeast.” Senator Jim Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, wrote in a letter to the EPA last month. “This was disappointing in light of the overrepresentation of those areas on the panel.” Inhofe urged the agency to pick a candidate with “fresh perspectives” to ensure “balance on the panel.”

Environmental groups and public health advocates argue that Honeycutt is unqualified to serve on the committee as a result of his longstanding opposition to the EPA’s rules to limit smog.

In policy papers and public statements, Honeycutt has said that reducing ozone, a component of smog, would result in negligible health benefits. Despite the overwhelming evidence that a reduction in ozone levels leads to better health outcomes, Honeycutt has said that the EPA’s ozone rules are unnecessary, in part because “Americans likely spend at least 90 percent of their time indoors.” Those positions have been adopted by top leaders of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and are a key component of Texas’ lawsuit attempting to block the ozone standards.

“Honeycutt has positioned himself as an opponent even questioning EPA’s science and generally casting doubt on air pollution research,” Adrian Shelley, executive director of the environmental group Air Alliance Houston, told the Observer. “He’s gone way beyond climate change denial and attacked ozone science.”

If appointed, Honeycutt will bring that same politicization and antagonism to the committee, potentially slowing or stopping progress in discussions about air quality by taking an extreme view, Shelley said.

In a call for nominations, the EPA said it will consider whether candidates appear to be impartial.

By that standard, Honeycutt will likely fail, environmental advocates say. In a letter opposing Honeycutt’s nomination last year, environmental groups wrote that he displays “a consistent pattern of ideological behavior.” They cited his public statements questioning the link between smog and asthma rates and a 2015 ozone workshop he led as director of the TCEQ’s toxicology division that concluded that the EPA was creating air quality rules based on uncertain science.

“Ideology is different from science and data,” Honeycutt said in an email to the Observer. “I’ll gladly discuss science and data with people who disagree with me. Further, industry has disagreed with me on various issues saying that TCEQ is overly restrictive.”

Among those who agreed to submit letters endorsing Honeycutt are professors at Texas Tech University, the University of Texas at Austin and Rice University; employees of Valero, Shell and Exxon; attorneys at law firms representing the oil and gas industry; and business groups such as the Texas Association of Manufacturers. Many were enthusiastic in their support for Honeycutt saying he was “professional,” the “best and brightest” in the field and “an excellent choice” for the position.

“I hope you contact many more professional colleagues, including those from around the country who could be especially adept at helping you to overcome the anti-Texans [sic] bias at EPA,” one attorney wrote to Honeycutt.

For Honeycutt, a CASAC appointment will likely help build his professional reputation. But he seems to think the chances of getting the position are slim.

“It would be a minor miracle if EPA selects me,” Honeycutt wrote in an email to David Grimes, a staff member at a Missouri planning commission. “I think the environmentalists would give them fits.”

Naveena Sadasivam is a staff writer covering energy and the environment at the Observer. She has a degree in chemical engineering and a master’s in environmental and science reporting from New York University.

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Published at 8:44 am CST
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