Environment First Look

Acting EPA head urges calm amid fears of possible course change

What's next for the EPA? Some fear nominee Scott Pruitt's intentions, but others say the green revolution's momentum will limit damage. 

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt testifies before a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee confirmation hearing on his nomination to be administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, Jan. 18, 2017.
Joshua Roberts/Reuters
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Climate trends may be clear, but the future of the Environmental Protection Agency is anything but.

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt is expected to be confirmed as the new head of the EPA as soon as Friday. Another politically divisive nominee, Democrats are concerned his record of bringing repeated lawsuits against the EPA betrays an anti-environment agenda. But many in the EPA are urging a wait-and-see position, arguing that the economic momentum of the renewable energy industry won’t be so easily slowed.

One senator opposing the appointment, Maine Republican Susan Collins, called Mr. Pruitt “an accomplished attorney with considerable knowledge about environmental laws,” but expressed doubt “about whether his vision for the EPA is consistent with the agency’s critical mission to protect human health and the environment.”

Independent Sen. Angus King, who is also from Maine, took that opposition a step further:

“I just can’t, in good conscience, as somebody’s who’s taken seriously environmental protection all my life, approve the appointment of someone who is so manifestly opposed to the mission of the agency,” King said, referring to Pruitt’s 14 lawsuits aiming to overturn regulations that limit mercury, minimize smog and haze, and control greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet voices at the EPA continue to urge calm.

Outgoing administrator Gina McCarthy suggests the agency’s popularity could help. "The EPA's mission is a nonpartisan mission," Ms. McCarthy said at a December event hosted by The Christian Science Monitor in Washington, D.C. "It's just about public health. People like clean air and clean water and healthy land."

Others argue that just because President Trump favors fossil fuels doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll want to, or even be able to, halt the spread of renewable energy. Green energy gets cheaper by the year and thrives in red states as well as blue.

Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, pointed out that Mr. Trump’s policy may mirror the nuance of the previous administration’s in some ways. He says that Obama encouraged investment in clean energy, while trying not to “mess up” fossil fuels. Trump has said he’ll be a friend to coal and gas, but despite encouraging drilling and pipeline construction he may not actively seek to “mess up” the emerging green energy markets.

Though he voiced doubts about the science of climate change on the campaign trail, since winning the election Trump has said he has an “open mind” with respect to honoring the Paris Agreement.

Acting interim administrator Catherine McCabe also suggests the future of the EPA may not be as bleak as some fear.

In an internal video message provided to the Monitor by an EPA employee, Mrs. McCabe said that despite the hiring freeze creating some challenges, “most of the agency’s work is proceeding as normal.”

She also thanked the transition team members for “their professional approach and courtesy,” and assured EPA employees that the agency’s core mission would remain unchanged, regardless of what happens on Friday.

“We will continue to do our best to ensure that this agency’s decisions and actions are based on our two bedrock principles – carrying out the law and ensuring that the best science informs all that we do,” she said.

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