Republican senators are rebranding the entire mission of the EPA

According to Republican senators, the mission of the EPA should be to create jobs. According to the EPA, that's not true.

An aide holds a chart for ranking member John Barrasso (R-WY) during the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety hearing in June. (CREDIT: Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)
An aide holds a chart for ranking member John Barrasso (R-WY) during the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety hearing in June. (CREDIT: Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt appeared before the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee for the first time since his confirmation hearing last January.

Pruitt has done a lot over the past year, from slashing environmental regulations to rearranging the way agency science advisory boards operate. His deregulatory actions have earned him criticism from environmental and public health groups, which argue that those actions are inconsistent with the EPA’s mission to “protect human health and the environment.”

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Republicans on the EPW Committee, however, had a different take. Rather than focusing on whether Pruitt had succeeded in carrying out the agency’s core mission, many chose to celebrate Pruitt’s deregulatory agenda as helping create jobs and grow economic opportunities for states across the country.

“Scott Pruitt’s policies at the helm of EPA, likely have protected more jobs and promoted more job growth, than any other EPA administrator in history,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), chairman of the committee, said during his opening remarks.

Barrasso wasn’t the only Republican to cheer Pruitt’s actions for their impact on job creation. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) said that Pruitt’s actions had “kick-started economic growth” and helped Iowa’s unemployment numbers dip below three percent for the first time since 2000. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) began his questioning by praising the “improvements in the economy that are coming with getting rid of some of these very punitive regulations.”

Republican lawmakers might be trying to rebrand the role of the EPA under Pruitt by applauding the potential economic benefits associated with cutting environmental regulations. But creating jobs and improving the economy aren’t the mission of the EPA. The EPA wasn’t created in 1970 to create jobs; the agency was created to ensure strong environmental protections across the federal government. Before the EPA, widespread pollution created environmental crises like the 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga River. Industries were allowed to dump pollutants into waterways and into the air practically unfettered; things like sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and ozone weren’t regulated at the federal level.

Republican lawmakers — and Pruitt — have argued that environmental regulations created by the EPA under the Obama administration were overly burdensome and constricted economic growth. But the purpose of regulations aren’t to help spur economic activity. Regulations exist because, left unregulated, industry would choose the path that ensures the highest profits with the least amount of effort.

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The EPA issues regulations to ensure that environmental laws passed by Congress are put in place in a way that protects public health and the environment. The primary regulatory rollbacks celebrated by Republican lawmakers on Tuesday — the Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the United States Rule — have had little impact on economic development throughout the country because those regulations were both put on hold by federal courts. Repealing them did not remove any regulations that were actively in place.

Pruitt has celebrated the administration’s regulatory rollbacks as saving the American people more than $300 million in regulatory costs. But those costs aren’t shouldered by the American public — they are shouldered by regulated industry, which pay for applications for permits to discharge pollutants into air and water, or pay for pollution controls to be installed on their operations.

The American public, on the other hand, often reaps public health benefits from environmental regulations. The Clean Power Plan, for instance, would have prevented as many as 4,500 premature deaths per year by 2030. The Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS), which would have placed stricter limits on how much mercury power plants can emit, would prevent 11,000 premature deaths per year. The Clean Power Plan is currently being repealed by the Trump administration, while the MATS regulation is on hold.

Regulations have costs, and the EPA is required to conduct a cost-benefit analysis when considering issuing new regulations. But environmental regulations are not inherently counter to economic growth — since 1970, for instance, the Clean Air Act has created some $22 trillion in economic benefits from reductions in premature deaths and better yields in some agricultural crops, among other things. And regulations themselves can sometimes create jobs; a rule limiting the amount of methane that can be emitted by fracking operations, which has been put on hold by the Trump administration, would have created jobs for leak detection and repair employees.

Under Pruitt’s leadership, the EPA has issued dozens of actions that have rolled back stricter limits on pollution. In contrast, it has taken relatively few actions that affirmatively protect the environment and public health — which is the core mission of the EPA, though one would be forgiven for thinking otherwise after Tuesday’s hearing.