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Level of EPA industry influence under Trump is unprecedented

Researchers conclude "regulatory capture" is greater at the agency than it's ever been.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt testifies before the House Appropriations Committee during a hearing on the 2019 Fiscal Year EPA budget on April 26, 2018 in Washington, D.C. CREDIT: Alex Edelman/Getty Images
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt testifies before the House Appropriations Committee during a hearing on the 2019 Fiscal Year EPA budget on April 26, 2018 in Washington, D.C. CREDIT: Alex Edelman/Getty Images

Under the leadership of Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has dramatically shifted away from its stated mission to “protect human and environmental health.” Instead, the agency is clearly favoring the interests of the polluting industries that it is mandated to regulate, according to new study published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Since its inception during the Nixon administration, the EPA has drawn criticism for its susceptibility to industry influence. But the speed and reach of the Trump administration’s effort to limit the EPA’s regulatory work exceeds all attempts by previous administrations to make the EPA an accessory to environmental crimes of industry, the study said.

According to the study, Pruitt’s attempts to give the EPA a radical anti-environment makeover even exceed the efforts by the early Reagan administration and the George W. Bush administration, its closest pro-industry counterparts.

“Considering the extent of its pro-business leanings in the absence of mitigating power from the legislative branch, we conclude that its regulatory capture has become likely — more so than at similar moments in the agency’s 47-year history,” the authors of the study wrote.

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What Pruitt is “accomplishing” at the EPA comes closer to “regulatory capture” than at any time in the history of the agency, the researchers said. Regulatory capture is defined as when regulation is directed away from the public interest and toward the interest of the regulated industry by “intent and action” of industries and their allies.

The EPA’s directives, rules, and operations before Trump took office in January 2017 often fell short of its mandate, leading to criticism by scholars, activists, and local communities. Some of this criticism, according to the study, focused on the agency’s hierarchical top-heavy command approach to regulation as outdated and a misalignment of environmental governance responsibilities among federal, state, and local authorities.

But this criticism is even more relevant under the Trump administration. “New EPA leadership has thus far aimed at deconstructing, rather than reconstructing, the agency by comprehensively undermining many of the agency’s rules, programs, and policies while also severely undercutting its budget, work capacity, internal operations, and morale,” the study said.

Along with attempts to roll back regulation of greenhouse gases, the EPA, under Pruitt, has gone after basic regulations that seek to ensure clean air and water and protect the environment and the public from harmful chemicals.

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The list of harmful actions taken by Pruitt is long. Most recently, Pruitt revealed last week that the EPA would treat burning wood and other “biomass” as a carbon-neutral energy source even though burning biomass releases harmful pollutants. Also last week, Pruitt announced he would prohibit a large amount of peer-reviewed scientific research from being considered in EPA decisions.

For the study, researchers from universities and institutes across the nation studied changes at the EPA over the first six months of the Trump administration. The researchers used public documents and news articles and analyzed interviews with current and retired EPA employees to put the changes occurring at the EPA under President Trump into perspective.

The researchers concluded in the study — titled “The Environmental Protection Agency in the Early Trump Administration: Prelude to Regulatory Capture” — that the lengthy experience of interviewees who worked for previous Republican and Democratic administrations made them valuable analysts for assessing recent shifts at the Scott Pruitt-led EPA.

The EPA employees interviewed for the study offered “valuable informants and analysis of the current situation because of their lived experience with the agency’s long-standing practices and (for those still at the EPA) a direct, firsthand perspective,” the study said.

“Their testimonies illuminate sharp contrasts between the current EPA and earlier ones, under both Republican and Democratic administrations,” the researchers found.

The study concluded that the Trump administration has “explicitly” sought to reorient the EPA toward industrial and industry-friendly interests, often with little or no acknowledgment of the agency’s health and environmental missions.

During the Reagan administration, the EPA was able to escape efforts by Administrator Anne Gorsuch to weaken the agency due to the scandals that rocked the agency.

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“One reason for this long-standing continuity in EPA practice through the 1980s is that the early Reagan political appointees became mired in scandal after only two years, putting Gorsuch’s administration under tremendous political pressure and leading to a dramatic shift in agency leadership,” the study said. “The subsequent return to the EPA of the highly respected first administrator, Republican William Ruckelshaus, went a long way toward restoring employee confidence in the purpose and direction of the agency.”

Even though the list of scandals facing Pruitt is much longer than under Gorsuch, EPA employees told the researchers that they see no signs of the anti-environment policies of the agency stopping anytime soon.

“Whereas today’s closest historical counterpart — the Reagan-Gorsuch era — faced hearings and opposition from a Democratic House of Representatives, Pruitt and Trump currently have the structural advantage of a Republican Congress,” the study said. “As one veteran from the Reagan years reflected, by the time Pruitt and the new political leadership are done with the agency, it will have become ‘a much smaller and probably much more passive operation than what you’ve got now’ — an agency, in other words, more easily circumvented or even captured by those it should regulate.”