People, planet, and the path ahead
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt arrives at Trump Tower in New York on Wednesday, Dec. 7.
Andrew Harnik/AP
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At EPA: Trump’s nominee and 15,000 or so counterweights

An administrator such as Scott Pruitt can steer in new directions, but that clout is offset by legions of staffers carrying on routines, enforcing rules, and, increasingly, caring about climate change.

Scott Pruitt, the nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, is just one man who, if confirmed by the Senate, will be steering a very, very large ship – one with more than 15,000 employees spread throughout the country.

That fact points to a reality facing the EPA and other federal agencies: The person at the top can do some steering, but the ship tends to have some persistent momentum of its own.

Donald Trump may have been elected partly on the resonance of his throw-the-bureaucrats-out attitude. And his pick for EPA, Mr. Pruitt, is known as an Oklahoma fossil-fuel advocate and an attorney general who has fought environmental regulations. By all signs, agency budget cuts and a regulatory rollback are coming.

But if history is any guide, another mind-set also matters – that of the career staffers who have seen political appointees come and go with regularity. They tend to stick to their knitting, enforce existing laws, and carry on with routines that predate any one administration.

And on perhaps the most crucial environmental issue the nation faces, another force of thought may be at work: Despite the doubts about climate change that have been voiced by Pruitt and Mr. Trump, the scientific consensus about human-caused warming of the planet has been seeping into the fabric of official Washington and of American public opinion.   

On climate, current EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy says there’s no going back to the George W. Bush years, thanks to the flurry of activity coming out of the Obama administration. She says that has helped raise awareness about climate change and emboldened federal scientists.

“This agency when this president came in really came out of the closet on climate,” McCarthy said in an exclusive interview last week. “I have a senior team that’s great and the senior career staff that are here are just extraordinary. They are here because of this mission, and that will continue.”

Some climate advocates worry that such avowals are wishful thinking, given the determination being voiced in some Trump-team quarters for rolling back Obama policies aimed at curbing emissions that trap heat in the atmosphere.

But Ms. McCarthy isn’t the only one who argues a meaningful shift has occurred.

'Genie cannot go back in the bottle'

“The climate change Genie cannot go back in the bottle,” Jim Buizer, a former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist who is now a professor at the University of Arizona, said in an email. “As for public opinion, I think that eventually it is this what will get the climate change deniers’ attention. They want to stay in power, and they will need public support to do so.”

Seventy-nine percent of Americans believe climate change is happening, compared with 12 percent who don’t, according to a September poll of 2,043 people by the University of Texas in Austin. That mark is the highest since the school started taking the poll four years ago, and even among people 65 years and older, 74 percent said climate change is happening.

For the next EPA administrator, all this doesn’t mean the ship captain can’t do some steering, including on climate policy. But interviews with former and current federal scientists, lawyers, and political appointees paint a picture of the limits on attempted u-turns.

“We’re federal employees. This happens. We have to work for them and most of them still want to do a good job. They don’t want to be known as the guy who came to EPA and did a bad job,” says one EPA researcher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “And obviously destroying the planet will not get you credit for doing a good job.”

The early signs out of the incoming Trump administration and Republican-controlled Congress suggest little love for the EPA. And the prospect of budget cuts appears very real. The agency has sizable regulatory authority and a wide degree of latitude in how it interprets the laws that guide its actions. If Congress wields an ax it would force program shutdowns, layoffs, research freezes, and a reduction in checkups to ensure facilities are complying with rules.

“You can’t say, ‘I’m not doing that anymore’ if there’s a law in place. It’s not as if somebody can come in and wave their hands and completely change direction,” says Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “But on the other hand, a new administration can still do great damage to the research programs, to the ability of scientists to do great work and ultimately to the decisions that come up.”

Crackdown on science?

Two examples: A Trump transition official has proposed gutting NASA’s earth science research, which provides key information on climate change, drought, and snowpack. And a GOP bill would pack independent science panels that advise agencies with more industry representatives whose impartiality may be in question.

The process of tearing down regulations, though, is much harder if the political and career staff are at odds, says Dina Kruger, a former EPA staffer who led the climate change division under Bush.

Ms. Kruger isn’t pollyannish. She said she expects morale to be low and senior staff to retire if the political appointees are adversarial to the agency’s mission. Young people might be deterred from working at the EPA.

Still, Kruger knows it doesn’t mean work stops when the political bosses aren’t entirely supportive. Her team compiled the scientific record that backed up the EPA’s finding that greenhouse gases endanger public health and ecosystems, the bedrock for the agency’s climate change regulations. All that work occurred during the Bush presidency, though under court order after the Supreme Court ruled that carbon dioxide was an air pollutant requiring regulation.

Invisible work

During the Bush years, McCarthy was an environmental regulator for Massachusetts and then Connecticut. The Bush EPA wasn’t trying to expand federal environmental regulations. But all the while McCarthy was able to work with EPA staff on the underpinnings of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a cap-and-trade system for emissions across nine Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states.

“I’ll tell ya a secret that doesn’t need to be kept secret. Even in the prior administration you had a lot of people in the agency that continued to do work on climate, even though that work was not visible,” McCarthy said. “They worked with the states to help us with the RGGI program. ... So the states really benefited from the EPA even at a time when there was no federal leadership on the issue. The work continues in the agency.”

That all might be cold comfort to the environmental groups and Democrats, who worry about scientific research being squelched or ignored in the new administration, at the EPA and beyond.

“I’ve already heard there are a number of scientists who have put in their resignation letters, so you’re going to see a brain drain for sure,” says Tracey Woodruff, a former EPA scientist and policy adviser who’s now at the University of California, San Francisco.

Funding priorities present the biggest threat to carrying out core agency work, according to people with federal government experience. The Republican Congress hasn’t been kind to EPA budgets and could look to starve programs including ones focused on enforcement and compliance.

Even down the chain of command, regional administrators – who also are political appointees – can shift enforcement priorities, said Rachel Tennis, a former associate counsel with a regional EPA office, who is now at King & Spalding in Washington.

Looking to laws and courts

Still, the lawyers charged with ensuring companies follow the rules aren’t partisan, says Grant Nakayama, who ran the enforcement office in George W. Bush’s administration.

“Enforcement is like law enforcement. It’s not as political and it shouldn’t be as political as the rest of the agency,” says Nakayama, who is now a partner at King & Spalding. “It’s pretty much 'What is the rule? Enforce the rule.' Enforcement, you wouldn’t expect to see a major change apart from what might happen with the budget."

Those marching orders, of course, would change if the rules do as well. Nakayama knows that well. The Bush EPA said it wouldn’t pursue legal action against power companies for violating certain emission rules because it was waiting on finalizing its new proposal – which would have exempted power companies from the original offenses for which the EPA was prosecuting them. A federal court, however, later found that new rule illegal.

“It is harder to change direction when you have laws and you have statutes that have been interpreted by the courts for years,” Nakayama said.

And over the years, the science to support agency actions and the court decisions that have cemented them have established larger obstacles for people who would wish to roll them back, such as Trump policy adviser Myron Ebell.

“For a lot of these rules it’s going to be hard for a lot of these folks, if they’re not familiar with these regulatory issues, to essentially develop a credible enough administrative record” to win rule changes, Kruger said of the incoming Trump team. “When I look at the endangerment finding [on greenhouse emissions], I have a really hard time thinking that even Myron Ebell could come up with a detailed enough record to get rid of it.”