Political appointees at the interior department have sought to play up climate pollution from California wildfires while downplaying emissions from fossil fuels as a way of promoting more logging in the nation’s forests, internal emails obtained by the Guardian reveal.
The messaging plan was crafted in support of Donald Trump’s pro-industry arguments for harvesting more timber in California, which he says would thin forests and prevent fires – a point experts refute.
The emails show officials seeking to estimate the carbon emissions from devastating 2018 fires in California so they could compare them to the carbon footprint of the state’s electricity sector and then publish statements encouraging cutting down trees.
The records offer a look behind the scenes at how Trump and his appointees have tried to craft a narrative that forest protection efforts are responsible for wildfires, including in California, even as science shows fires are becoming more intense largely because of climate change.
James Reilly, a former petroleum geologist and astronaut who is the director of the US Geological Survey, in a series of emails in 2018 asked scientists to “gin up” emissions figures for him. He also said the numbers would make a “decent sound bite”, and acknowledged that wildfire emissions estimates could vary based on what kind of trees were burning but picked the ones that he said would make “a good story”.
Scientists who reviewed the exchanges said that at best Reilly used unfortunate language and the department cherry-picked data to help achieve their pro-industry policy goals; at worst he and others exploited a disaster and manipulated the data.A trail through the Tongass national forest, where Trump proposed allowing logging. Photograph: Rafe Hanson
The emails add to concerns that the Trump administration is doing industry’s bidding rather than pursuing the public interest. Across agencies, top positions are filled by former lobbyists, and dozens of investigative reports have revealed agencies working closely with major industries to ease pollution, public health and safety regulations.
A USGS spokesperson said Reilly’s emails were “intended to instruct the subject matter expert to do the calculations as quickly as possible based on the best available data at the time and provide results in clear understandable language that the Secretary could use to effectively communicate to a variety of audiences.” The agency added that it “stands by the integrity of its science”
When forests burn, they do emit greenhouse gases. But one expert said the numbers the interior department put forth are significant overestimates. They say logging wouldn’t necessarily help prevent or lessen wildfires. On the contrary, logging could negate the ability of forests to absorb carbon dioxide humans are emitting at record rates.
It is climate that is responsible for the size and severity of these firesMonica Turner
Chad Hanson, a California-based forest ecologist who co-founded the John Muir Project and a lawyer who has opposed logging after fires, called the strategizing revealed in the emails a “blatant political manipulation of science”.
Mark Harmon, a professor emeritus at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry, said while it’s normal for the department to want to quantify emissions from fires, it’s unclear whether they began the process with a particular figure in mind.
“Gin-up is an unfortunate phrase to be sure, but it might have been a very imprecise way to ask for an estimate. It certainly does not inspire confidence,” Harmon said.
He said the resulting quotes from top officials and press releases from the department are “about what you would expect from agencies trying to justify actions they already decided to take with minimal analysis”.
Harmon added that “the effect of logging on fires is highly variable,” depending on how it is done and the weather conditions.
Not long after the interior department came up with its carbon emission estimates from the 2018 California wildfires, Trump issued an executive order instructing federal land managers to significantly increase the amount of timber they harvest. This fall, he also proposed allowing logging in Alaska’s Tongass national forest, the largest intact temperate rainforest in North America.
Trump has also tweeted multiple times about wildfires, saying they are caused by bad land management or environmental laws that make water unavailable.
Monica Turner, a fire ecology scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said “it is climate that is responsible for the size and severity of these fires”.
An Interior department spokesperson said the department’s role is to follow the laws and use the best science and that it continues “to work to best understand and address the impacts of an ever-changing climate.”
Agency officials started emphasizing wildfire emissions data as a talking point as early as August 2018.
In an email chain that month, Reilly was asked by interior’s former deputy chief of staff Downey Magallanes to sign off on a statement that fires in 2018 had emitted 95.6m tons of CO2.
“Interesting statistics,” Reilly responded, noting that emissions would vary based on the types of trees on the land. “…We assumed woodlands mix since we don’t currently have details on the overall land cover types involved. Any variance to the fuel type will still leave it in the range to make the comparison, however. I’ll use this one if you don’t object. Makes a good story.”Homes leveled by the Camp fire at the Ridgewood Mobile Home Park retirement community in Paradise, California. Photograph: Noah Berger/AP
Reilly, who was confirmed to his position in April 2018, later asked career scientists at the agency for updated numbers, according to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
“I need to get a number for total CO2 releases for the recent CA fires and a comparison against emissions for all energy in US … Tasker from the boss; back to me ASAP,” he said on 10 October 2018. His boss at the time was the former interior secretary Ryan Zinke.
The job fell to Doug Beard, the director of the National Climate Adaptation Science Center, and Bradley Reed, an associate program coordinator in the Geographic Analysis and Monitoring Program, who responded with numbers from his team that afternoon.
In November 2018, Reilly once again asked for the same estimates of carbon dioxide generated by two devastating fires that fall in California – the Camp and Woolsey fires.
“The Secretary likes to have this kind of information when he speaks with the media,” Reilly said in a 16 November email to David Applegate, the associate director for natural hazards.
Applegate directed Beard to get the numbers, and Reilly chimed in, asking Beard: “Can you have [the scientists] gin up an estimate on the total CO2 equivalent releases are so far for the current 2 fires in CA?” He said he wanted to compare the figures to the carbon pollution caused by transportation in California.
“That would make a decent sound bite the Sec could use to put some perspective on it,” said Reilly.
Just a week earlier, the ferocious Camp fire had destroyed Paradise, California, killing dozens and becoming the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history. The scenes detailed were horrific.
Conservatives have insisted that the wildfires are happening because environmentalists have overzealously encouraged the conservation of forests. Trump has battled with California – the face of the American progressive movement he opposes – over a multitude of other issues, including the state’s longstanding climate policy of requiring new cars to go farther on less fuel.
The new emails show communications staffers and political appointees using government scientists as foot soldiers in those battles.‘There’s too much dead and dying timber in the forest, which fuels these catastrophic fires,’ Zinke said. Photograph: Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Now, under the leadership of the former lobbyist David Bernhardt, the agency has sought to remove consideration of climate change from many of its decisions, while expanding oil and gas drilling on federal land. Multiple whistleblowers have accused the department of stifling climate science.
Bernhardt in a May 2019 hearing told lawmakers there are no laws obligating him to combat climate change.
After Reilly asked his staff to calculate the wildfire emissions numbers in November, an interior spokeswoman emailed him asking for the same information so she could put out a statement from Zinke. A few days later, the agency published a press release on Zinke’s behalf, with the title “New Analysis Shows 2018 California Wildfires Emitted as Much Carbon Dioxide as an Entire Year’s Worth of Electricity.”
“There’s too much dead and dying timber in the forest, which fuels these catastrophic fires,” Zinke said. “Proper management of our forests, to include small prescribed burns, mechanical thinning, and other techniques, will improve forest health and reduce the risk of wildfires, while also helping curb the carbon emissions.”
As wildfire experts have repeatedly explained, you can’t log or even ‘rake’ our way out of this messJayson O’Neill
Hanson, the forest and fire ecologist, said that in addition to using the government data for political purposes, the department numbers overstated the carbon emissions from forest fires while downplaying emissions from fossil fuels.
He said that the carbon emissions numbers generated by USGS and released to the public were an “overestimate” that “can’t be squared with empirical data” from field studies of post-wildfire burn sites in California. Other scientists the Guardian spoke with did not dispute the government’s data, but did find fault with the way it was presented to the public.
“The comparison of fire to electrical emissions [in California] was not explained or justified”, said Harmon, the Oregon State University scientist. “Picking other sectors would have left an entirely different image in the reader’s mind…If the comparison had been made nationally it would have been found that fire related emissions of carbon dioxide were equivalent to 1.7% of fossil fuel related emissions. So it is hard to escape the conclusion that some cherry picking was going on.”
Jayson O’Neill, the deputy director of the Western Values Project, said the emails are another example of the administration “trying to find ways to tell a story to achieve industry goals”.
“As wildfire experts have repeatedly explained, you can’t log or even ‘rake’ our way out of this mess,” O’Neill said. “The Trump administration and the interior department are pushing mystical theories that are false in order to justify gutting public land protections to advance their pro-industry and lobbyist dominated agenda.”
That’s because the ambitious federal researcher who created it in Washington quit rather than move when the Agriculture Department relocated his agency to an office park here last fall.
He is one of hundreds of scientists across the federal government who have been forced out, sidelined or muted since President Trump took office.
The exodus has been fueled broadly by administration policies that have diminished the role of science as well as more specific steps, such as the relocation of agencies away from the nation’s capital.
While the administration has come under fire for prioritizing the concerns of industry at the expense of science in government decisions, the cumulative effects are just beginning to appear after three years of Trump in the White House.
Some farmers said the USDA staff upheaval has made it harder to access information they need.
Torrential rains last spring dashed the plans of Liz Brownlee, who runs a livestock farm with her husband, to expand her pasture in Crothersville, Ind. Then an unseasonably dry autumn brought 90-degree days that baked the farmers’ seeds.
“With all this uncertainty from climate change, I need the best data possible” to know when to plant, she said. “I’m worried I’m not going to have it.”
In the first two years of the Trump administration, more than 1,600 federal scientists left government, according to Office of Personnel Management employment data analyzed by The Washington Post. That represents a 1.5 percent drop, compared with the 8 percent increase during the same period in the Obama administration.
One-fifth of the high-level appointee positions in science are vacant — normally filled by experts who shape policy and ensure research integrity.
Of those who departed, the numbers were greatest among social scientists, soil conservationists, hydrologists and experts in the physical sciences — chemistry, geology, astronomy and physics.
At the Environmental Protection Agency, nearly 700 scientists have left in the past three years, according to The Post analysis. The EPA has hired 350 replacements.
Linda Birnbaum, who spent four decades working on toxicology and public health issues at the EPA and National Institutes of Health before retiring in October, said the loss of expertise weakens the government’s ability to make sound decisions.
“It’s going to take a long time for government science to come back. There’s little doubt about that,” said Birnbaum, who serves as an adjunct professor at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She added that NIH has remained well- insulated because it enjoys bipartisan support in Congress.
“But when I look at colleagues in other agencies, especially any agency that has any regulatory role, they’re decimated,” she said.
Trump administration officials dismiss that notion, saying much of the criticism comes from activists outside the federal government.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt points out that he is the first secretary to enlist a career federal scientist to serve as his scientific adviser.
“I’ve got an ideas box, I haven’t seen that,” he said in an interview, referring to complaints that science has been de-emphasized. “I do hear that from advocates and external parties. And, you know, anybody that looks at these things objectively tends to find that they’re without merit.”
Last year, the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity accused Bernhardt of pushing aside the conclusions reached by career scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regarding how a pesticide affected endangered species. Eight Democratic senators sought an investigation. Interior’s inspector general concluded there was “no evidence” Bernhardt abused his position.
As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump called climate change a “hoax.” Once in office, he began dismantling much of President Barack Obama’s climate plan. He has installed industry figures in regulatory roles and rolled back scores of rules and policies that he considers harmful to the fossil-fuel industry. Trump’s actions spurred scientists into the streets, joining protesters for a March for Science rally on the Mall in 2017 and again in 2018.
Many scientists who work for the U.S. government or rely on its funding say the changes brought by the Trump administration are being felt across the country.
After historic rainfall last spring swept away livestock and grain in the Midwest, crop planting was delayed by weeks. Andrew Crane-Droesch, 38, a researcher at the Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service, started work on a data tool that could predict months in advance the impact of, say, heavy rainfall on crop prices or planted fields. He hoped that knowledge could help farmers, commodity traders and government disaster planners prepare.
But when Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue moved forward with his controversial plan to relocate the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture — two key research agencies — to Kansas City, Crane-Droesch headed for the exit.
He joined two-thirds of affected employees in his division who either retired or found other jobs rather than move to the greater Kansas City region. At the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which oversees $1.7 billion in scientific funding for researchers, nearly 8 of every 10 employees have left.
Crane-Droesch, who took a health-research job in Philadelphia, said there’s no one left at the USDA who has the time or the know-how to run the model he created or to finish the project.
“All that work was for naught, and they nuked the account,” he said. “Even if they hired somebody for my portfolio — which I don’t think they did — it would take that person quite a while to get up to speed, just as it took me several years.”
The move to Kansas City has also meant dozens of reports and millions in research funding have been delayed or scuttled as the Agriculture Department scrambled to keep up with departures.
The agency has been forced to hire back 21 retired employees on temporary contracts, to stanch its losses.
But experts on bee pollination, organic farming, commodity markets and trade are gone, setting back research that has been in process for months or even years.
“They never tried to refute our work; they tried to bury it by getting rid of the people who produced the work,” Crane-Droesch said.
To restore the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Economic Research Service to their size under the Obama administration, the USDA would have to hire more than 400 people. One USDA official said the department has “well over 150 active recruitments in process between both agencies.”
Current and former employees interviewed said they felt the move to Kansas City was intended to diminish research areas such as trade policy, farm income and climate change; Perdue is a climate skeptic who recently described the problem as “weather patterns, frankly.”
A USDA spokesman defended the move, saying that Perdue believes the agencies can better serve “customers” — farmers, ranchers, academic institutions and agribusiness — by relocating to Kansas City, “a hub for all things agriculture in America’s heartland.”
The department estimates it will save $300 million over 15 years from employment and rent in Kansas City.
Some federal researchers said they left the Trump administration after concluding their work was being undermined.
Dan Costa, who worked at the EPA for 34 years before stepping down as director of its air, climate and energy research program in January 2018, said the tipping point for his retirement came when an EPA spokesman undercut a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that the agency had funded.
The study found that long-term exposure to levels of soot and smog lower than current national standards can cause premature death among older Americans. Such a finding suggests that current standards don’t adequately protect public health, which would have implications for industries that pollute. An unidentified EPA spokesman attacked the study in an interview with the Washington Times, an act Costa called “scientifically unethical.”
Peter Van Doren, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Insitute, said in an interview that scientists need to remember that they don’t set policy.
“When nerds and politicians disagree, nerds lose,” he said. “Scientists think, ‘We are smart, and we ought to decide.’ But we don’t get to decide.”
Elsewhere in the government, political appointees have delayed grants for scientific work.
At Interior’s U.S. Geological Survey, Director James Reilly “felt that he needed to personally look at every grant that went out,” according to Bernhardt’s science adviser William Werkheiser, who served as Reilly’s deputy before joining the secretary’s office. The process stalled grants at the agency’s climate adaptation science centers for more than six months.
The centers fund university research to help wildlife, lands and people adjust to a changing climate.
Robin O’Malley, who retired last month as director of one climate adaptation center, said in an interview that the slowdown in hiring and grant approvals has hampered the centers.
“They haven’t said no to us at any time, they’ve just made it difficult to move forward,” he said. “You’re up a creek.”
Across the government, the administration is scaling back advisory committees that offer input to policymakers from scientists and other experts. Last year, Trump required agencies to eliminate one-third of their advisory panels, with a few exceptions.
Will McClintock, a marine scientist who has helped dozens of countries establish marine sanctuaries, used to serve on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Protected Areas federal advisory committee.
After seeing that people were mailing in hand-drawn maps to nominate reserves, McClintock created a Google Maps-like program called SeaSketch that allows fishermen, divers and conservationists to propose sanctuary zones alongside scientists and government officials.
“I’m bringing lots and lots of expertise, for free, to our federal government,” said McClintock, a project scientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara who volunteered on the advisory panel. But before NOAA could adopt the software, his federal advisory committee was eliminated.
Some Republicans have supported the executive order to cut advisory committees. “Based on the characterization made by many of my colleagues and their friends in the media, you would think this order was a death blow to science at all the agencies,” said Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler at a hearing in September. “In reality it just seems like a common sense, nonpartisan way to eliminate wasteful committees.”
The Office of Management and Budget declined to estimate the cost savings from cutting the committees. "The administration is always looking for ways to end redundant and out of date programs — this is an open and closed case where taxpayer resources are better used elsewhere," the office said in a statement.
It is unclear whether the USDA relocation will ultimately save taxpayers $300 million over 15 years as promised. For now, employees transferred to Kansas City are working out of an existing USDA office until permanent space is leased.
Earlier this month, the boxy building about six miles outside the city's central business district had the feeling of the first day of school. New hires waited to sign in, get security badges and learn where to park.
"We lost a lot of people, and we're trying to rebuild," said Daniel Hellerstein, an economist who researches the economic impact of soil conservation. Hellerstein was one of the retiring employees who was temporarily hired back but remains in Washington. "It's going to be difficult because the slots we need are fairly skilled, and there's a lot of competition out there for qualified people."
Much of the impact of the federal government's shrinking science capacity will not be felt for years, observers said.
"If we're gone, is the world going to be a worse place?" he mused. "I like to think so. But it's not going to be immediate."
By Megan Williams, Sherevan Alhamy and Kim Cammack
Williams is the environmental, health and safety director for Flint Hills Resources’ seven ethanol plants in Nebraska, Iowa and Georgia. She resides in Ohiowa, Nebraska. Alhamy is the mold design engineer for Molex in Lincoln. She resides in Lincoln. Cammack is the safety leader for the Koch Fertilizer plant in Beatrice. She resides in DeWitt, Nebraska.
As women who work for Nebraska companies in senior science, technology and engineering roles, we recommend attending the upcoming Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day at the Nebraska Innovation Campus in Lincoln on Saturday.
The Lincoln Children’s Museum and the University of Nebraska College of Engineering have organized this annual event for children in grades three through 12.
The event is Nebraska’s part of a nationwide effort centered on girls in engineering. Kids of all ages can learn about STEM in the company of family and friends. Many Nebraska companies and organizations volunteer on this day to offer educational experiences, including fun, hands-on learning opportunities.
Together, our goal is to spark kids’ imaginations and help them aspire to study in STEM fields. We believe bringing more attention to STEM learning can encourage kids to pursue careers in science and engineering.
Promoting children’s education in science, technology, engineering and math are both timely and necessary. Multiple reports indicate America’s future workforce will require many more people with STEM educational preparation. There will be a projected 10.5 million jobs in STEM by 2028, and the salaries for these positions are among the highest of all jobs.
But not enough women pursue these careers. Compelling evidence points to the problem: Girls are not choosing STEM education paths when they’re young.
A Microsoft study found around age 11, girls become interested in studying STEM but begin to lose interest around age 15. In high school and beyond, girls and women generally take fewer advanced math and science courses. As a result, the rate of female professionals in STEM professions is relatively low.
In a 2018 report, the National Science Board reported the proportion of women in computer and math sciences occupations is 26%. Women account for just 9% of the workforce of mechanical engineers. Among electrical and computer hardware engineers as well as aerospace, aeronautical and astronautical engineers, women account for 10-13% of the workforce.
Society is missing out on the contributions women can make as STEM innovators and leaders. Women themselves are missing out on the rewarding STEM career opportunities.
The world needs more critical thinkers and innovators, and today’s young people represent the next generation of problem solvers. To help inspire children to study math and science, our three Koch Industries companies — Molex, Koch Fertilizer and Flint Hills Resources — are proud to be presenters and co-sponsors of Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day.
To learn more about Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day, please visit the Lincoln Children’s Museum website at lincolnchildrensmuseum.org.