Controversial TCEQ Scientist Aims for EPA Panel Seat

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Sure, Michael Honeycutt has spent the bulk of his career as head of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's toxicology division railing against anything the federal Environmental Protection Agency proposes, but don't assume that has soured him on the EPA entirely.

It turns out Honeycutt — one of the top ozone science doubters in the state — is remarkably eager to score a seat on the EPA's Clean Air Science Advisory Committee. The committee is a seven-member independent body composed of public health and air quality experts, each appointed by the EPA administrator. It makes scientific recommendations on air quality to the EPA, so essentially you want people on this board who are completely dedicated to science and not political in the least.

And that's where Honeycutt comes in. 

Honeycutt is the guy who has been leading the charge against making any changes to air quality standards in Texas. He and a bunch of TCEQ scientists have followed in the footsteps of Republicans in Texas and across the country in vowing to oppose EPA air quality changes until the end of time, more or less. He's stated in the past he's against any measures to reduce air pollution mainly because he feels they would be too expensive. Aside from that, Honeycutt reasons that ozone levels aren't an issue at all because  "most people spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors" so they're rarely exposed to significant layers of ozone.

No kidding, he laid the whole thing out in an article posted on the TCEQ website back in 2014 as we then reported. Honeycutt holds similar, shall we say, unusual views about air pollution and climate science across the board. He's been lobbying against pretty much anything and everything the EPA comes up with for years, according to Air Alliance Houston Executive Director Adrian Shelley. 

“He's accused the EPA of being political at the same time that he's politicized the EPA himself, casting doubt on science and on the EPA's ability to do science," Shelley says. "His statements over the years show he clearly doesn't have a lot of respect for the agency.” 

Despite Honeycutt's criticism of the federal agency, though, it turns out he really wants to be a part of the Clean Air Science Advisory Committee. Last year, though, Honeycutt was nominated to become a member of the committee. (Those who qualify as experts may nominate themselves or be nominated by the public or by scientific and research organizations, professional societies, and non-governmental organizations, as well as government organizations, according to the EPA's website.)

When Shelley learned Honeycutt was a candidate, he penned a letter outlining the reasons Honeycutt should not be picked, mainly because his record at the head TCEQ's toxicology division "shows a consistent pattern of ideological behavior, indicative of the appearance of a loss of impartiality," according to the letter. It goes on to note Honeycutt's statements questioning or undermining ozone science and how Honeycutt has "[taken] positions favoring industry and a lax regulatory climate over public health protections." The letter also contends that Honeycutt has questioned the EPA's conscience in setting up a new National Ambient Air Quality Standard for ozone and "positioned himself in an ideological argument with the EPA, claiming that fighting the agency is 'the right thing to do.'" 

The letter was submitted to the EPA and signed by Shelley; Neil Carman, the Clean Air Program director for the Sierra Club's Lone Star Chapter; Elena Craft, senior health scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund; Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas; Jim Schermbeck, director of Downwinders at Risk; and Robin Schneider, executive director of Texas Campaign for the Environment. 

And so the EPA did not name Honeycutt to the committee last year.

However, this year it appears Honeycutt has truly set his cap for getting onto the committee. During a month-long public comment period in July, Honeycutt, once again a nominee, reportedly sent out at least 100 letters to university professors, state air pollution regulators, industry representatives and lawyers, according to the Texas Observer. “I would really appreciate if you could send an email of support,” Honeycutt wrote, according to the Observer. “I’ve attached my CV for your information." 

The Press requested an interview with Honeycutt, but TCEQ spokeswoman Andrea Morrow stated via email that he is unavailable. She also said Honeycutt will keep his TCEQ position should he be appointed to the committee because this committee meets only a few times a year.  "His appointment to this committee would bring representation for the states’ perspective," Morrow said. 

This time around, Shelley didn't submit a letter opposing Honeycutt's nomination. "I thought the first letter is already on the record and that there was nothing more to add. We certainly haven't changed our opinions in the past year," he says.

What puzzles Shelley most is why Honeycutt wants the gig at all. “It doesn't make a whole lot of sense. He's politicized the EPA and cast doubt on the agency's science. I just don't know why he would be interested in joining the science advisory committee," Shelley says. “There's no doubt it's a good career move if you're a prominent toxicologist who wants to become more prominent, but that's only true because of the committee's august reputation as a scientific authority. It can be a tall platform to advance your views, though. Maybe that's what he wants, the platform.”

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