A look at how the events of the past ten days could be a hint of what’s to come for the agency.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the nation’s leading protector of people and ecosystems from air and water pollution, toxic chemicals and pesticides, and contamination from industrial sites. The EPA is also responsible for implementing programs that reduce climate-disrupting greenhouse gas pollution from our homes, vehicles, power plants and factories.
The agency is having a rough go of it in the current political climate, with a prominent climate denier picked to lead the administration transition team, a foe of the agency’s mission poised to become its next administrator, and a series of restrictions levied on its science and communication capabilities. A lot has happened over the past ten days, and while some of it is good news, the overall picture suggests that the Trump administration and Congress have every intention of continuing to use the agency as a punching bag in order to make polluting great again.
January 26: Myron Ebell, who headed the Trump transition team for the EPA, suggested in an interview that his “aspirational goal” for the agency was to cut its funding in half and its staff by two-thirds. Mr. Ebell’s tenure with the administration ended on Inauguration Day, and he has returned to his position at an industry-funded think tank, so he is not in a position to directly achieve these “aspirations” – but it was nonetheless a worrying signal for the future of the agency.
January 27: A freeze on grants and contracts, which had been ordered on January 23, was shorter-lived than was feared, and the grant program was proceeding normally by the end of that week. States from Alaska to Florida breathed a sigh of relief as that grant money helps them pay for everything from remediation of old gas stations to installing plumbing in remote villages.
January 30: President Trump signed an Executive Order decreeing that for every new regulation an agency proposes, it has to recommend repealing two. The order also states that “the total incremental cost of all new regulations, including repealed regulations … shall be no greater than zero.” The order leaves some big questions unanswered, namely, how does an agency like the EPA make such a calculation? For instance, repealing a clean air regulation might indeed save polluters some compliance costs, but could cause a spike in the cost of treating asthma cases. A new rule on greenhouse gas emissions will cost money to enact, but could eventually help prevent trillions of dollars in losses to life and property from severe weather events and sea level rise. When looking at both new and repealed regulations, will they be able to count the value of the benefits of rules protecting our air, water and climate?
February 1: Republicans on the Senate committee tasked with reviewing nomination for Administrator of the EPA suspended the rules in order to recommend his confirmation on an 11-0 vote. Committee rules generally require that at least one member of both parties be present for a vote, but Democrats had boycotted the meeting in protest of the nominee’s inadequate answers to questions about his connections to polluters.
February 2: ClimateCentral reported that subtle but important changes have been made to the EPA website. The website’s page on climate change still exists, but the language has been altered to de-emphasize the role of greenhouse gases in causing climate change, and references to President Obama’s Clean Power Plan and the United States’ international leadership on climate change policy have been removed.
February 3: Freshman Congressman Matt Gaetz (R-FL) introduced H.R. 861, a bill “To Terminate the Environmental Protection Agency.” The bill, which has three cosponsors, would turn all environmental regulation and clean-up over to states within two years. Losing the EPA could be a disaster for environmental protection, and would create a bureaucratic nightmare: since the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and other laws that the agency administers are still on the books, they would have to be implemented by the states. Moreover, the congressman did not elaborate on how he thought having 50 different sets of standards and regulations for clean air and water would be more efficient or protective than having one.
February 6: 450 former EPA employees sent a letter urging the Senate not to confirm Pruitt as EPA administrator, and in an even more unusual move, dozens of current EPA employees in used their lunch hour to protest Pruitt.
February 7: The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology held its first hearing of the current legislative session, in which one science advocate and a trio of industry lobbyists were invited to give their views on how to “Make the EPA Great Again.” The Committee’s Chairman, Texas Representative Lamar Smith, whose penchant for issuing subpoenas to climate scientists has been described as “bullying” and “a witch hunt,” has introduced a bill that would bar the agency from using in their decision processes any data that can’t be released to the public (like hospital admissions, which are protected by privacy laws) or are from one-time events (like the Gulf Oil spill).
What’s next for the EPA and the precious resources that it is tasked with protecting?
It’s difficult to say. Some analysts expect that Congress will use the to rescind some of its work from the last year of the Obama administration, including rules on fuel economy, formaldehyde, pesticides and air quality. The full Senate vote on Pruitt has not yet been scheduled, though most Senate watchers expect that he will be confirmed. Even if our worst fears about the future of air, water and climate protection are realized, we will be here to stand up and fight against any attempts made to strip environmental protections for wildlife.
Defenders of Wildlife is deeply concerned that vital conservation and wildlife laws and regulations are at risk, which is why we will remain diligent to defend wildlife and their habitat from both Congressional and administrative threats. Follow us on social media to stay up-to-date on the status of other developments important to wildlife conservation and our work.