People, planet, and the path ahead
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt speaks in Washington on Feb. 21.
Susan Walsh/AP/File | Caption

Why the EPA faces big cuts under Trump budget proposal

A shift in thought

Environmental issues have become more polarized even since the years of George W. Bush. One factor: The stakes for both parties surrounding climate change have risen.

Last weekend, President Trump’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency told a conservative audience that calls for the agency to be eliminated are “justified.”

Key Obama policies – notably the Clean Power Plan to reduce utilities’ carbon dioxide emissions – should be dismantled, Scott Pruitt said.

On Monday, the president gave a glimpse of how far his administration is prepared to go to bring that vision about.

The president’s proposed budget calls for sizable budget cuts across the government – averaging of 10 percent of nondefense discretionary spending – to pay for a $54 billion boost in defense spending. The EPA looks set to be hit particularly hard. One report suggests its budget could be reduced by 24 percent.

Republicans have long had little love for the EPA. But the early days of the Trump administration appear to be something more. George W. Bush, after all, quoted scientists saying the rise in heat-trapping greenhouse gases was “due in large part to human activity.” He even sometimes expanded federal funding for climate research.

By contrast, the Trump administration has taken a much harder line.

The evolution of climate change into a badge of intense partisanship has contributed to the widening rift. Moreover, a new strain of the right’s ardently anti-regulatory philosophy has taken hold among many influential conservatives.

To some observers, that’s partly a reaction to an Obama administration that pulled environmental policy sharply to the left through executive actions. Now, the question appears to be: How far will the Trump administration go?

“They challenged science in the Bush administration, but it wasn’t this constant drumbeat,” says Christine Todd Whitman, who was the Bush administration’s EPA chief from 2001 to 2003. The Trump team is “undermining the credibility of science, and that is certainly very concerning.”

Among the Obama-era decisions that could be reversed or amended:

• United States participation in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.

• The Clean Power Plan, which calls on states to reduce power-plant emissions to 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

• The “endangerment finding” by which the EPA identifies carbon as a threat to public health – and therefore to be regulated as a pollutant.

• The “social cost of carbon,” a policy-guiding estimate of the long-term costs of greenhouse gases to society and the economy.

Mr. Pruitt says he backs the goal of clean air and water but says it can be accomplished with a much leaner EPA and with responsibilities pushed back to the states. As Oklahoma attorney general, he sued the EPA 14 times.

A different vision of regulation

Trump’s signature energy proposal so far is to revive the highest-emission fossil fuel, coal. “Miners are going back to work,” he told a cheering crowd at a summit for conservatives Friday.

In his first address to EPA employees last week, Pruitt laid out elements of that vision.

“Regulations ought to make things regular. Regulators exist to give certainty to those that they regulate,” Pruitt said, emphasizing job growth while not using the words “health,” “climate,” or “pollution.”

The Republican Congress appears to be on a similar tack.

At a recent House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing, Republican lawmakers accused scientists with federal grants of being biased. They want to add more industry representatives to the independent scientific panels that advise the EPA as a counterweight academics on those panels.

Some Republicans have pushed back at the comments coming from their own party. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine – the only GOP vote against Pruitt’s confirmation – says that eroding trust in science is dangerous.

“I certainly respect the right of people to protest, but I think we also need to listen to one another,” Senator Collins said. “That includes listening to experts in the world of science and not assuming that everyone has a political agenda when they’re presenting scientific findings.”

The partisan gap on green issues has widened for several reasons, she and others say.

Well before the term “fake news” roared into the lexicon, right wing commentators dismissed climate change an Al Gore-driven, George Soros-funded conspiracy to expand regulatory control of the economy and daily life.

Ever larger infusions of cash from interest groups on both sides of the aisle haven’t helped (though amounts on the Democratic side pale in comparison efforts by conservatives).

Heightened urgency

All the while, the rising stakes have ramped up a sense of urgency.

As scientists have voiced greater conviction that human-caused emissions are the leading cause of global warming – and something must be done – many conservative Americans dismiss the warning as politically biased.

James Connaughton, who ran George W. Bush’s Council of Environmental Quality (CEQ), says climate policy needs to weigh economic costs as well as the promised benefits of policy, and that policymakers should be aware “of opinions coming out of the academies.” [Editor's note: This paragraph has been updated for accuracy in the quotation.]

There was tension over science in the Bush years, as now. Mr. Connaughton’s CEQ was accused of emphasizing the uncertainties in climate research to avoid drafting regulations.

Bud Albright, a former Energy Department undersecretary for Bush, says he expects the Trump administration to “open up the data” to include viewpoints that may not include urgent pleas to address emissions. He suggests that some scientists felt they’d be “blacklisted” for sharing contrarian views during the Obama administration. They might find a friendlier White House for the next four years.

Some scientists, he adds, “clearly have a bias that they’re unwilling to acknowledge.”

According to a Pew survey, just 15 percent of conservative Republicans and 32 percent of moderate Republicans say they trust climate scientists, compared with 70 percent of liberal Democrats and 45 percent of moderate Democrats. More than half of conservative Republicans believe career advancement and political leanings are the primary influences behind climate scientists’ findings.

Backlash to the Obama years

Some say the Obama administration played a part in the partisanship.

After failing to win legislative approval for his cap-and-trade emissions plan, and then seeing Congress pass into Republican control, Obama used executive powers to advance climate initiatives. Republican opponents contend the actions amounted to regulatory overreach. Federal courts are currently considering his Clean Power Plan.

“They went back and reinterpreted old laws in new ways that weren’t interpreted that way for the first 20 or 30 years of existence. And I think that was an overreach,” says Sen. John Barrasso (R) of Wyoming, who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee.

Even some Democrats acknowledge the role Obama played.

“If you have a scale of 1 to 100, you had the Bush EPA that seemed generally fairly balanced.… You had the sense in general that it was a responsible organization,” says Rep. Don Beyer (D) of Virginia. “Then Obama came in and ratcheted it up to an 80 or 85 and tried to be much more aggressive about dealing with things.”

But Representative Beyer, who sits on the House Science Committee, sees the early tone of the Trump administration as quite different from the Bush years.

Beyer personally doesn't prefer Bush to Obama on the environment, but says“I was much more comfortable with the Bush EPA than I am with a … Scott Pruitt EPA.”