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Scott Pruitt's Misleading Senate Testimony: Will 'Alternative Science' Replace Real Science at EPA?

Shira Silver's picture

Climate news and commentary blog for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

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  • Feb 12, 2017

Earth as seen from a NOAA weather satellite. Photo: NOAA/NASA

As a climate scientist who is trained to base his conclusions strictly on scientific evidence and not politics, I find it particularly troubling that Scott Pruitt, President Trump’s pick to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is misrepresenting the scientific data that shows the earth’s atmosphere is warming.

Pruitt hopes to run the agency responsible for protecting the lives and health of Americans from environmental threats, and that includes reducing greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet. And as the Supreme Court has ruled, EPA has the authority to address greenhouse gases.

However, in his testimony before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on January 18, and then in follow-up written answers to Senators, Pruitt made several misleading, or flat-out inaccurate, statements.

In his attempt at subterfuge, Pruitt leaned on false and misleading climate-skeptic myths that have been debunked time and time again.

For instance, consider this one question and answer:

Written question from Sen. Jeff Merkley: Are you aware that each of the past three decades has been warmer than the one before, and warmer than all the previous decades since record keeping began in the 1880s? This trend is based on actual temperature measurements. Do you believe that there is uncertainty in this warming trend that has been directly measured? If so, please explain.

Written answer from Scott Pruitt: I am aware of a diverse range of conclusions regarding global temperatures, including that over the past two decades satellite data indicates there has been a leveling off of warming, which some scientists refer to as the “hiatus.” I am also aware that the discrepancy between land-based temperature stations and satellite temperature stations can be attributed to expansive urbanization within in our country where artificial substances such as asphalt can interfere with the accuracy of land-based temperature stations and that the agencies charged with keeping the data do not accurately account for this type of interference. I am also aware that ‘warmest year ever’ claims from NASA and NOAA are based on minimal temperature differences that fall within the margin of error. Finally, I am aware that temperatures have been changing for millions of years that predate the relatively short modern record keeping efforts that began in 1880. (Questions for the Record, page 145)

In response to the scientific evidence that the last three decades have each been warmer than the one before it, Mr. Pruitt offered negligent claims that both the satellite data and surface based observations have shown there to be no warming over the last two decades – the so-called global warming hiatus.

Science does not agree with this assessment.

The idea of a hiatus and a potential discrepancy between satellite and surface based data have been under intense objective scrutiny by the scientific community for some time – and the results are in:

  • NOAA scientists recently published a peer reviewed article in the Journal Science that clearly shows the “hiatus” to have never existed.
  • Then last month a follow up study, undertaken by a separate group of researchers as an objective check on the NOAA result, also confirmed that the global warming hiatus never happened.
  • Additionally, the alleged satellite discrepancy has also been debunked – its origin an artifact of necessary, but potentially faulty, post-processing techniques that are employed when using data gathered by a satellite from space, as opposed to direct surface temperature measurements from thermometers. Stated plainly, raw satellite observations from space are not as accurate as those taken in the actual location, so these raw observations need to be quality controlled for scientific accuracy.

Next, in the same answer, in what can only be described as countering his own misguided narrative, Pruitt attempted to blame the increasing temperature trend – which he just stated did not exist via the hiatus argument – on an unfounded discrepancy between satellite based and urban land based data.He claimed the increase in urbanization was causing a fictitious rise in global temperature – an impact long shown to be minimal at best, especially when applied to the massive geographic expanse of the world relative to the lesser change in the geographic extent of cities.

Pruitt went on to quibble with the fact that 2016 was the warmest year ever recorded, by overemphasizing the role of negligible differences in how various scientific agencies around the world calculate the globally averaged temperature.

Actually, the diversity of approaches is a scientific strength, because it provides a balanced view of the data – much like seeking a second opinion on a medical diagnosis. It’s vital to note that despite these trivial differences in methodology, the three long-running analyses by NASA, NOAA, and Great Britain’s UK Met Office all showed 2014 to 2016 to be the three consecutive warmest years on record. This fact is indisputable.

Pruitt concluded his misdirection by pointing out his awareness that temperatures have been changing for millions of years, and predating the relatively short modern record. Mr. Pruitt is indeed correct that the rapid warming in recent decades is quite alarming in the context of the much slower and longer term natural changes – although I don’t think that was what he was trying to say.

Pruitt seemed unaware of the latest scientific evidence on the various topics he chose to explore during his testimony. That indicates an ignorance of science coupled with a lack of preparation which adds up to being unfit to lead a scientifically-based government agency.

By Scott Weaver

Original Post

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on Feb 12, 2017

Ultimately, the denial stems from the campaign contributions and PR efforts of the fossil fuel industry, along with apathy and ignorance on the part of most voters, to say nothing of those who don’t even vote.

The only thing that will change this is a catastrophic and wide-scale weather event: a horrendous heat wave that melts asphalt, wilts crops, knocks out power grids, and kills a lot of people. Then we’ll get the “war on climate change.”

Maybe this summer: the winter of 2011/12 set the record for low Arctic sea ice, and the summer was scorching at times. Now that sea ice record has been greatly eclipsed and what ice there is in the Arctic will be much warmer than usual.

In the other hemisphere, New South Wales is baking in record heat.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Feb 13, 2017

To the extent that we don’t have a workable replacement for the fossil industry in place, I am more concerned with the “Wind and Solar will save us” Alternative science.

Lets face it these folks don’t want us to replace Fossils, they just want to look like they do.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Feb 13, 2017

“… these folks don’t want us to replace Fossils”?
Why do you arrive at that conclusion?
Peculiar, as it’s opposite to:

– the explicit targets of several countries;
Denmark 100% renewable electricity in 2040, now already >50%;
Scotland 100% renewable electricity in 2020, now already >60%;
Germany 45%/80% renewable electricity in 2025/2050; now already 32%;
Denmark 100% renewable regarding all energy (transport, heating, etc) in 2050.

How come you think that the studies which the involved scientists of these countries made, concluding those targets can be reached against acceptable costs, arrived at wrong conclusions?

Denying even the studies of French govt institute ADEME, who concluded that 80% renewable is the cheapest situation for French electricity in 2050?

– the target the “Greens” themselves always state; 100% renewable.

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on Feb 13, 2017

There has been some funding by U.S. natural gas producers for eco groups that promote renewables and fight nuclear. The idea is that the intermittent nature of renewables preserves a market for natural gas.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Feb 13, 2017

Considering that nuclear is only base load and cannot deliver more than ~60% against affordable costs (as France shows who now reduces towards 50%), natural gas producers are far better off with nuclear than with renewable.

Rex Berglund's picture
Rex Berglund on Feb 13, 2017

Paul, the NuScale SMR is due to be commercialized in 2026 and would be a workable replacement to nat. gas in a majority renewable grid.

Of course, there’s also hydro. in addition to wind and solar.

With a carbon tax we’d just choose the least cost solution.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Feb 13, 2017

Au contraire. Clean baseload is exactly what’s needed to enable DSM / load-based regulation to work as an alternative to inefficient peaking units burning carbon-based fuels for dispatchable supply.

Without baseload, DSM can’t help in situations where wind and solar are not producing. If you don’t have a base supply, you can’t create “virtual supply” by shedding discretionary loads. DSM in a mostly renewable energy economy can only improve the statistics of involuntary load curtailment (aka blackouts) by resorting to it only after voluntary load curtailment has been exhausted.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Feb 14, 2017

It doesn’t matter what one claims to want. It doesn’t matter if one genuinely does want it. What matters are the consequences of the policies that one advocates.

The consequences of the policies that the “wind and solar will save us” crowd advocate are the de-facto lock-in of fossil fuels for a large part of the world’s energy supply. Atmospheric CO2 levels will not be arrested. They will continue to rise until the last bits of wealth have been wrung from the world’s fossil carbon assets. Consciously or not, intended or not, the “wind and solar will save us” crowd are pawns of incumbent fossil fuel interests.

Advocates of 100% renewables — “renewable” interpreted as excluding nuclear — offer up a cocktail of solutions to problems of intermittency and seasonal variability of wind and solar. Greatly expanded capacity for long distance power transmission, large-scale energy storage, demand-side-management (DSM) of discretionary loads to create “virtual power plants”, and as a last resort, power generation from stored biomass. They endeavor to focus the debate on technical issues, to prove the physical possibility of their 100% renewable ideal.

But physical possibility is another thing that doesn’t matter, if the solution offered is not cheaper than the existing alternatives. And the existing alternative of fossil fuels is pretty damned cheap! A carbon emissions tax could make it less so, but when Washington state tried to pass one, it was defeated. It was defeated with active or passive assistance of Green Peace, the Sierra Club, and other “green” organizations. It seems the economic advantage that a carbon tax would confer to nuclear power was of more concern to them than rising levels of atmospheric CO2.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Feb 14, 2017

I find it particularly troubling … the so-called global warming hiatus.

So called by … IPCC AR5, which used the term “hiatus” half a dozen times to describe recent temperature trends. It is not like the term originated with Pruitt in Oklahoma. If the recent El Nino or other factors have changed the trend, the use of breathless shock in conveying the facts to political leadership can’t be the most effective means.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Feb 14, 2017

– the explicit targets of several countries

The usual misdirection: nevermind what is, continued coal, increasing gas and biomass use, and sharp increases in electricity rates. Instead, just trot out the “targets” along with today’s renewable share which is largely dependent on unchanging hydro capacity in Europe.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Feb 14, 2017

While wind+solar produce only ~20%, all major utilities in Germany are trying to get rid of all base load asap…
As US is roughly a decade behind, US utilities will follow around 2030…

There is enough cheap storage available in earth cavities, as experience in e.g. Germany (~200TWh readily available) and NL show.
Furthermore Power-to-Gas is in fast development. Germany expect to have 2GW available in 2022, and plans full roll-out in 2025
German grid is ~70GW so 8GW PtG will produce enough to compensate lulls during ~5% of the time.

With cheap electricity in periods of overproduction by wind & solar (av. 1.2cnt/KWh) and the widely predicted roundtrip efficiency of 40%, the cost price of electricity during the short periods when there is no wind & solar in the grid will be <5cnt/KWh….

Even most old written off nuclear cannot compete in that situation with av. whole sale prices of ~3cnt/KWh…
It explains the moves of German utilities to get rid of base load asap

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Feb 14, 2017

German shares (of production):
2000: fossil 62%; renewable 7%; nuclear 29%.
2016: fossil 53%; ren 30% (wind+solar 18%); nuclear 13%.

And fossil will decrease much faster once more dangerous nuclear is out in 2022.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Feb 14, 2017

all major utilities in Germany are trying to get rid of all base load asap

Evidence, please.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Feb 14, 2017

Differences to 100% is too large to be attributed to rounding.

More importantly, perhaps, is that fossil generation will likely be higher in 2022 due to nuclear shutdown, and progress after that will be slow due to integration woes. With wind and solar over 30% together, how to get in more? No, the answer won’t be PtG.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Feb 15, 2017

Didn’t account for “Übrige Energieträger”. Assuming those are fossil (though not quite true as e.g. geo-thermal isn’t):
2000: fossil 66%; renewable 7%; nuclear 29%.
2016: fossil 57%; ren 30% (wind+solar 18%); nuclear 13%.

Wind+solar is increasing as scheduled with >5GW/a in the German grid which is ~70GW.
There is no longer discussion about any threshold as it’s clear that their successful PtG developments will absorb the fluctuations (they now even have a margin of >10yrs for delays).

Even no longer at ~80% by wind+solar. So they run down biomass gradually (check the EEG2017) as that is more expensive than wind+solar+grid extension+storage (batteries+PtG).

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Feb 15, 2017

The biggest utility, E.on, placed all base load*) in a fully separate independent company, Uniper, whishing it all the best.

The second biggest utility, RWE, declared that it would transform into a service company with renewable.
As it apparently didn’t go fast enough, they then decided to create a majority owned daughter Innogy focused on renewable power, electricity distribution and retail sales.

The third, Vattenfall, is selling base load. Among others they sold older (base load) lignite plants to Polish & Czech utilities.

All four major utilities tried to get rid of their nuclear power plants by offering all NPP’s + the waste & decommission funds + dropping the compensation claims for the premature closings in 2011
for zero to German govt and proposed to start negotiations.

So they were prepared to pay substantial extra (you may assume some billions) during the negotiations….
Merkel flatly refused.
It also indicates that the compensations for Merkel’s premature closures are crumbling.

Nowadays NPP’s are becoming a burden as they cannot compete against wind+solar.
*) except nuclear as that burden would make the Uniper IPO impossible. Besides, such move wouldn’t discharge E.on from its liabilities regarding its NPP’s

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