President Donald Trump has filled his administration with officials who have strong ties to industry or close connections to groups with an anti-regulatory agenda. The Environmental Protection Agency has been no exception.
Numerous top political appointees at the EPA previously lobbied on behalf of industries regulated by the agency or have close ties to anti-climate ideologues. In a short amount of time, these appointees have successfully organized an assault on several Obama-era regulations, although at least one official is worried career staff employees could stifle attempts to reshape the agency.
The office of Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), one of Congress’ most prominent opponents to climate action, has served as a pipeline for delivering top staffers to Trump’s EPA. Ryan Jackson, a former Inhofe chief of staff, now serves as EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s chief of staff. Byron Brown, who worked as oversight counsel for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee while Inhofe was chairman, is now Jackson’s deputy.
Another former Inhofe staffer, Mandy Gunasekara, joined Pruitt’s staff in March as a top adviser. Aside from her time on Capitol Hill, Gunasekara worked as the National Association of Chemical Distributors’ senior director of legislative affairs where she lobbied for reforming the Toxic Substances Control Act.
Gunasekara caused a stir last month when she told coal executives at an industry conference at Walt Disney World that she wants to make sure the EPA is working for them. “I’m here to talk to you to make sure what we’re doing in D.C. is beneficial for you,” Gunasekara said May 4, according to reporting from S&P Global, an energy trade publication.
The Trump administration has “slowly been stocking” the EPA with appointees with “serious conflicts of interest,” wrote Keith Gaby, senior communications director of climate, health, and political affairs for the Environmental Defense Fund.
Gaby provided several examples, including Nancy Beck, who moved from senior director of regulatory science policy at the chemical industry’s main lobbying organization — the American Chemical Council — to be the highest political appointee at the EPA office overseeing the chemical industry.
Another example is Justin Schwab, now a top lawyer at the EPA, who previously represented Southern Co., an Atlanta-based utility company with a large fleet of coal-fired power plants. The company has been directly affected by several Obama-era environmental regulations, including the Clean Power Plan, E&E News reported.
After spending four years at the Baker & Hostetler law firm, Schwab joined the EPA in January as a deputy general counsel. Schwab had other industry clients, according to E&E, that could be affected by EPA actions, including construction equipment manufacturer Caterpillar Inc., lawn-care giant The Scotts Company LLC, metal producer Mississippi Silicon LLC, and steelmaker Big River Steel LLC.
Christian Palich, who was hired as a deputy associate administrator in the EPA’s Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Relations, previously served as president of the Ohio Coal Association.
Former energy lobbyist Elizabeth “Tate” Bennett was selected to serve as deputy associate administrator of EPA’s Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Relations. She is in charge of the agency’s review of legislation, communication between the agency and Congress, and implementing the legislative agenda for the agency.
Bennett worked for two years as a lobbyist for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which represents more than 900 customer-owned rural utilities. The association, whose members have been historically reliant on coal, has pushed heavily against emissions-cutting regulations, including the Clean Power Plan.
Samantha Dravis joined the EPA in February to head the agency’s Office of Policy after serving in senior roles with the Republican Attorneys General Association and its affiliated Rule of Law Defense Fund. Dravis also previously served as legal counsel to the Freedom Partners, a group structured as a chamber of commerce and funded partially by the Koch brothers.
Soon after Trump’s inauguration, a small group of anti-environment officials were tasked with laying the groundwork for the president’s policies at the EPA. Among the members of this group were lawyer David Schnare and the Heritage Foundation’s David Kreutzer.
Schnare, a frequent adversary of the EPA during the Obama administration, joined the agency’s transition team in January.
Schnare, a former 30-plus year staffer at the EPA, also directed a conservative think tank’s environmental program that opposed regulation as a pollution remedy and served as legal counsel at the Energy & Environment Legal Institute, an organization funded partly by the Koch brothers-linked Donors Trust fund. As part of a campaign that some have described as harassment, he filed several legal requests to see the email inboxes of climate scientists and EPA administrators.
In March, after less than two months, Schnare stepped down from his job as a senior adviser to the EPA. Upon his departure, Schnare reportedly complained that some career employees at the agency wanted to undermine Trump’s agenda.
While at the Heritage Foundation, Kreutzer, another member of the transition team, wrote that “no consensus exists that man-made emissions are the primary driver of global warming.” After serving on Trump’s “landing team” for the EPA, Kreutzer took a permanent job at the agency, focused on economic policy. Like Schnare, though, Kreutzer lasted only a couple months at the agency, resigning from his senior adviser position in March.
The anti-environment stance of EPA administrators and their political appointees did not start with Donald Trump or Scott Pruitt. President Ronald Reagan was known for making eyebrow-raising statements — “trees cause more pollution than automobiles do” and if “you’ve seen one tree you’ve seen them all” — that would have sent Twitter abuzz if the social networking service existed in the 1980s.
James Watt, a strong supporter of ranching and oil and gas development on federal lands, was a lightning rod of controversy during his tenure as Reagan’s first secretary of the Interior. Reagan’s first EPA administrator, Anne Gorsuch Burford — mother of Trump’s first appointment to the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch — was accused of caring more about protecting business interests than the environment. A Natural Resources Defense Council official once described Watt and Gorsuch as two of the most “anti-environmental political appointees” in U.S. history.
“The last time there was someone as opposed to the EPA as Pruitt leading it was Anne Gorsuch Burford,” Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, wrote in an editorial last month. “She weakened superfund sites and tried to push hazardous waste incinerator ships off of our coast. Anne was the first Cabinet member who faced a charge for contempt of Congress when the Democrats were in control and she was forced to resign.”
Pruitt made a name for himself as a crusading anti-regulation state attorney general. In Oklahoma, he sued the EPA 14 times to block clean air and water safeguards actions taken by the agency.
His pro-industry pedigree has led environmental groups to describe him as “the most anti-environmental head of the Environmental Protection Agency in at least a generation.” EDF, in an assessment of Pruitt’s tenure so far, noted that he is “obsessed with his mission of advocating for big polluters.”
In his first 100 days as EPA administrator, Pruitt, with the assistance of his top lieutenants, has attempted to turn the agency’s mission on its head. Certain industry groups have welcomed the dramatic shift in philosophy from the Obama era. Environmentally conscious members of the public are less thrilled with the new leadership team at the EPA.
“Estimates suggest that if [Pruitt] is able to fully enact his agenda, about 130,000 Americans will die prematurely due to air, water and toxic pollution. So while America will survive Scott Pruitt’s tenure at the EPA, we know that many Americans won’t,” EDF’s Gaby said.