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Heartland Institute wants to abolish EPA for 50-state committee

What could go wrong?

Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in Washington, DC. CREDIT: Environmental Protection Agency
Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in Washington, DC. CREDIT: Environmental Protection Agency

By Phil Newell

Yesterday, the Heartland Institute’s environment page — on which materials are typically ordered chronologically with new posts at the top — re-posted a policy brief from 2014. The proposal? Replacing the EPA with a “Committee of the Whole of the 50 state environmental protection agencies.”

Eight years ago, this idea was a pipe dream. No policymaker in Washington would have seriously considered a plan to slash the EPA’s budget by 80 percent, shrink the staff from 15,000 to just 300 employees, and move the headquarters from Washington, DC to Topeka, Kansas. And while the idea is unlikely to gain traction in Congress, it’s reappearance suggests that Heartland believes this administration will look favorably on efforts to further decentralize the EPA.

The brief, written by Heartland’s science director Jay Lehr, argues that “today, EPA is all but a wholly owned subsidiary of liberal activist groups.” This sentiment was wrong in 2014, but it’s particularly ironic today, when there are so many EPA political staff who previously worked for industry or for public officials who deny climate change.

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Given Pruitt’s deference to polluters, there’s is a possibility that Heartland has serious hopes of turning this proposal into public policy. Pruitt has strong ties with the think tank. Emails show Pruitt asked Heartland for names of people who could challenge scientists in a proposed debate about climate change. Pruitt  also recorded a video for a Heartland event. For its part, Heartland has defended Pruitt’s scandal-ridden tenure and supplied the EPA with materials that, contrary to the scientific consensus, “support the conclusion that human activity is not the largest factor driving global climate change.”

In the brief, Lehr claims that state agencies are “less vulnerable to lobbying” than the national EPA office. In fact, it is easier for state-based businesses to exert political power over a state regulatory body than for them to do the same at the national level. Earlier this month, ThinkProgress reported on fourteen states where state environmental agencies are being run by someone who previously worked for an industry that the agency regulates. Examples include a former coal lobbyist running the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and a career coal employee leading the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet.

Notably, four states  —  Kansas, Colorado, South Carolina and North Dakota  —  don’t even have a centralized environmental agency of any kind. That’s about to change for North Dakota, but not necessarily for the better. A new state law will create a singular environment agency, but it will have an advisory board that, by design, will be stacked with oil and gas interests. Eight of thirteen seats are reserved for industry voices.

Lehr’s policy brief concludes with a note “to those who say [the proposal] would fail to adequately protect the public’s health or the environment,” encouraging critics to “reflect on the poor job currently being done by the EPA.” This made little sense in 2014, when the EPA was pursing an ambitious pro-environmental agenda. But reading it again in 2018, it sums things up nicely.

Phil Newell writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.