As a candidate, Donald Trump once classified the work of the Environmental Protection Agency as “a disgrace.”
As president, he shows few signs of softening that stance.
Trump, a climate change denier, began his relationship with the agency by naming Myron Ebell — a noted climate denier — to lead the transition team’s efforts at the EPA. He followed that up by nominating Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who has sued the EPA 14 times, to head that same agency. Once he was sworn in as president, Trump continued the transition by freezing EPA grants and contracts, telling career staff not to speak with the press, and threatening to run agency science through political appointees.
All told, the relationship between the Trump administration and the EPA is shaping up to be one of nearly unprecedented discord, according to several outside observers.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Dr. Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told ThinkProgress. “I have been engaged both as a scientist and in policy positions for 25 years, and I’ve never seen anything even vaguely like this.”
“Sure, there is always a little push and pull on particular agencies, but nothing of this style,” he added. “Dismantling the agencies? No.”
A vocal critic as administrator
When Trump first nominated Pruitt as EPA administrator, the criticism from environmentalists and Democratic lawmakers was swift and loud — some went so far as to call Pruitt’s nomination the “worst-case scenario.” Sen. Bernie Sanders, (I-VT), a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, immediately said that he would oppose Pruitt’s nomination, weeks before his first confirmation hearing had even been scheduled. Other lawmakers, like Sens. Ed Markey (D-MA), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) joined Sanders in almost immediately decrying the nomination.
Pruitt faced an onslaught of questions about his ties to fossil fuel interests, donations made on behalf of fossil fuel companies to his nonprofit, and his climate denial during his confirmation hearing. In that hearing, Pruitt told legislators that he did not know if there was a safe level of lead for human consumption, and tried to cast doubt on the connection between human activity and climate change. He also refused to agree to recuse himself from cases where he had sued the EPA, raising questions about potential conflicts of interest (Pruitt is party to a number lawsuits pending against the EPA, including both the Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the United States rule).
Last week, Senate Democrats boycotted a committee vote on the nomination of Scott Pruitt. Republicans suspended committee rules and voted Pruitt through to a full floor vote without a single Democrat present. Pruitt will likely receive a full Senate vote this week — and, despite Democratic opposition, his confirmation seems likely.
But Pruitt hasn’t just drawn criticism from Democratic lawmakers. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) has expressed concern with the number of times Pruitt has sued the EPA. Christine Todd Whitman, former EPA administrator under George W. Bush, told Grist that she could not recall “ever having seen an appointment of someone who is so disdainful of the agency and the science behind what the agency does.”
Michael Gerrard, faculty director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, does recall one historical analogue to Pruitt as EPA administrator: Anne Gorsuch, who presided over the agency during the Reagan administration.
“This particular kind of antagonism has that one and only that one historical precedent,” Gerrard said of Pruitt and Gorsuch, noting that Gorsuch’s two years at the EPA were punctuated by budget cuts, rifts with career staff, and a decline in enforcement actions carried out by the agency — all things that could ostensibly take place at a Pruitt-run EPA.
“The difference was at the time we had a pro-environmental Congress, which greatly constrained Reagan’s attempts to roll back environmental regulations,” Gerrard said.
Challenges in Congress
But today’s environmentalists can find no such comfort in the current Congress, which seems almost as focused as the president on cutting the influence of the EPA.
On Friday, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) introduced a bill to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency. While there is no text available for the bill — which has three co-sponsors, all of whom are Republican — the Pensacola News Journal reported that it would essentially eliminate the agency at the federal level and transfer all environmental enforcement privileges to the states.
That bill is largely in line with Pruitt’s past comments about the EPA. In testimony regarding the Clean Power Plan given before a Senate committee in 2015, Pruitt stated that “states are best suited” to implement policies like air pollution standards. In reality, however, Pruitt cut the environmental enforcement unit from the attorney general’s office, and was slow to champion state-wide environmental policies or enforcement. According to the Environmental Integrity Project, none of the 714 press releases sent out by the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office under Pruitt touted any environmental enforcement or reduction in pollution.
Republican lawmakers, most notably Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), have also made a point of challenging the EPA’s scientific work. Smith, a climate change denier and chair of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, is holding a hearing on Tuesday aimed at undermining the scientific work of the agency. Dubbed “Making the Environmental Protection Agency Great Again,” Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, described the hearing as part of a campaign to “sow doubt about science” and ultimately roll back environmental regulations and protections.
Gaetz’s bill seeking to terminate the EPA altogether, so far, hasn’t gone anywhere — but it’s just an example of how the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress are fairly uniform in their desire to significantly undercut the authority of the EPA. In 2013, House Republicans attempted to cut EPA funding by one-third; in 2015, Senate Republicans proposed cutting the EPA’s budget by 9 percent. Earlier this year, Myron Ebell — leader of the Trump EPA transition team — suggested that the administration could be interested in cutting the EPA’s budget by as much as two-thirds, which would leave as many as 10,000 workers — both in Washington and in EPA regional offices around the country — out of a job.
An agency in flux
For career employees at the EPA, the Trump administration’s antagonism towards their work — and the appointment of a man who has spent the last six years fighting the agency’s mission — has been unsettling. Employees have been coming to work in tears, according to a report in E&E News, fearing that the work they have done over the past eight years will almost certainly be rolled back.
“It’s really a slap in the face appointment to people who care about the environment, people who worked at EPA for 30 years to try to make the air and water better, people who are still at EPA trying to do a credible job and be actual public servants, people who care about public service in general,” Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project who served as director of EPA’s Office of Civil Enforcement from 1997 to 2002, told ThinkProgress. “It’s really demoralizing. It makes them angry.”
So far, changes at the agency have been fairly restrained — the freeze on EPA grants was lifted, for instance, and the administration has walked back news that it was planning to entirely remove the EPA’s website on climate change. The EPA website has seen some modest, but marked, changes: Obama’s federal climate plans are gone, as is mention of carbon pollution as a cause of climate change. More emphasis has been given to adaptation than mitigation, signaling the administration’s inclination to separate the cause of climate change from the responses to the problem.
But that could all begin to change when Pruitt is confirmed, as expected, by the full Senate later this week. Columbia’s Gerrard expects that the EPA under Pruitt will see a “tremendous reduction in the enforcement of existing environmental laws,” and it remains to be seen how Pruitt — who has challenged the Clean Power Plan in court — will fulfill the agency’s duty to regulate carbon as a pollutant, as directed by the Supreme Court in 2007.
Schaeffer — who himself resigned from the EPA over George W. Bush-era policies — also drew analogies between Pruitt and Anne Gorsuch as EPA administrator. But the current situation, he said, is much more dangerous, because unlike Reagan, who faced a Democratic majority in Congress, Trump appears to have no one in Congress or in his inner circle to push back against his anti-regulatory agenda.
“We have Bannon and Conway and Spicer. It is just a bizarro world,” Schaeffer said. “And Trump himself is so wildly unpredictable. I think it’s significantly more dangerous.”
“Trump himself is so wildly unpredictable. I think it’s significantly more dangerous.”
But the EPA does have one weapon in the fight against the Trump administration and Congressional Republicans bent on rolling back its power: the American public. According to a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll released in January, more than 60 percent of Americans want to see the EPA’s enforcement powers either preserved or strengthened under President Trump. And that could lead to public backlash if the administration — or Congressional Republicans — try to roll back the agency’s powers as promised.
“My hope is that they so over play their hand that the rebound, which I think eventually has to come, leaves the agency and environmental protection in a stronger position than it was in the last few years of the Obama administration, when it was constantly being attacked,” Schaeffer said. “I hope when people see this extreme alternative up close, they will reject it pretty soundly.”