EPA's big shift: Will Scott Pruitt fundamentally change environmental protection?

The EPA administrator appears to be initiating a more dramatic overhaul of the agency than the typical course correction seen with changes in presidential administrations, historians say.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, US President-elect Donald Trump's pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), talks to reporters after meeting with Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R) of West Virginia in her office on Capitol Hill in Washington on January 4, 2017.

In a Trump cabinet filled with controversial appointments, one of the most polarizing is the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency: Scott Pruitt.

To fans, Mr. Pruitt is a champion of industry who can undo regulatory overreach by the EPA. But for critics, Pruitt – a climate-change skeptic who in the past has been part of 14 lawsuits against the agency he now leads – embodies the idea of the fox guarding the henhouse. 

The direction of the EPA typically ebbs and flows with the shifting political tides in Washington. So a shift away from the regulation-heavy focus under the Obama administration would have been expected regardless of whom President Trump installed at the helm of the agency. But Pruitt appears to be initiating a more dramatic overhaul of the agency than the typical course correction seen with changes in presidential administrations, historians say. 

What his ultimate impact will be, however, remains an open question.

For one thing, Pruitt has already run up against bureaucratic and legal limits to some of his attempted rollbacks of Obama-era regulations, and it’s become clear that many of his stated goals may be harder to put into motion than he thought. But for many, including a number of career staffers who have previously weathered changes in leadership as a matter of course, the steady trickle of small changes that he has been able to enact amount to a major shift for the agency.

'A thousand attacks'

Compared with the agency under former President Barack Obama, when there was a strong focus on strengthening regulations to incorporate scientific advances, particularly research about pollutants and climate change, the shift in direction under Pruitt’s EPA is a stark one. It has more in common, say historians, with the EPA in the first couple years of former President Ronald Reagan, under Anne Gorsuch (the mother of Mr. Trump’s Supreme Court appointee Neil Gorsuch). That two-year period was marked by budget cuts and a relaxation of enforcement and regulations that ultimately ended in scandal.

“They have built on the Reagan-Gorsuch strategy. I wouldn’t be surprised if they kind of studied that,” says Christopher Sellers, an environmental historian at Stony Brook University in New York.

In the first 200 days of Trump’s presidency, Pruitt has asked for a 31 percent budget reduction – which Congress rejected – and has sought to undo many environmental rules put in place during Mr. Obama’s administration.

Many of those moves have flown relatively under the radar compared with the massive media attention given to Trump’s planned withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. But taken together – along with proposed budget cuts or lack of rule enforcement – these incremental changes could have an even greater impact.

“It’s a thousand attacks,” says Scott Slesinger, legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental nonprofit based in New York. “On everything [Pruitt] does, he’s trying to weaken environmental enforcement, weaken environmental protections, and let industry polluters off the hook.”

To deregulation and states rights advocates, meanwhile, Pruitt’s efforts are in keeping with Trump’s campaign promises to scale back government overreach and industry-stifling environmental regulation.

“It's necessary and a lot more than necessary,” says Steven Milloy, a member of Trump’s EPA transition team and author of “Scare Pollution: Why and How to Fix the EPA.” “We've had 45 years of bad science, overregulation, and tyranny by the EPA.” Mr. Milloy argues that many of the regulations are based on biased science and aren’t necessary for public health in the ways proponents claim.

Many of the proposed rollbacks can seem dry and technical, and they may not mean much to the average voter. But even small changes to rules can have a big effect on clean air and water and public health, advocates say, pointing to rules governing coal ash management, the listing of various toxic chemicals, risk management plans at industrial facilities, and methane emissions from oil and gas facilities. The targets that have received the most attention, like the Obama-era Clean Water Rule and Clean Power Plan still haven’t hit the radar screen of most voters.

The devil is in the details

Pruitt’s position on Obama’s signature environmental regulations has always been clear. As Oklahoma attorney general, he was part of lawsuits against the EPA involving the Clean Water Rule, the methane rule, and the Clean Power Plan. But actually undoing those rules is difficult, legal experts note. If adopting a rule is a time-consuming, bureaucratic process, involving detailed fact-finding, cost-benefit analysis, and comment periods, undoing those rules is also cumbersome. Most notably, a new rule – backed by evidence – must replace the old one.

Likewise, removing the teeth from adopted rules has proven difficult. A federal appeals court ruled in July that Pruitt’s decision not to enforce parts of the methane emissions rule represented an “unreasonable” delay and declared that as long as the rule is on the books the agency must enforce it. 

That setback may have discouraged Pruitt from announcing similar delays in other rules. Observers say that he is likely to have an easier time delaying implementation of controversial rules like the Clean Power Plan or the Clean Water Rule, however, which were already under court stays.

“Some of the things he’ll try to do he won’t be able to get through the courts, but some he will. It will be a mixed bag,” says Daniel Farber, an environmental law professor at the University of California, Berkeley and the co-author of a recent report looking at the potential consequences of the Trump administration for the environment.

Professor Farber and others say that the most significant changes may come through less direct means: cutting the budget, and therefore the agency’s capacity; reducing scientific research and monitoring; and (unofficially) doing less enforcement of existing regulations.

“The courts won’t intervene on that,” says Farber. The EPA under former President George W. Bush and Mr. Reagan also tried for regulatory rollback, he notes, somewhat less aggressively than now, and met with legal obstacles.

“What turned out to be their strongest weapons were budget and enforcement cuts,” says Farber.

Brain drain

Perhaps the most significant sign of the depth of changes taking place under Pruitt is the departure of career employees from the agency.

“A lot of people who are really good are leaving the EPA. The best people will find other things people want them to do, and the people who aren’t as good are stuck,” says Steven Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York and a former EPA employee and consultant. “That’s a typical human resources story in these kinds of conditions.”

Researchers, including Professor Sellers of Stony Brook University, conducted dozens of interviews of current and former EPA employees for The EPA Under Siege, a report released this summer that examines the agency both historically and in the Trump era. Excerpts of those interviews, in an appendix, reveal a demoralized staff that describes feeling at war with the new political appointees. Along with the effort to undo regulations, the interviewees expressed dismay over what they view as disregard for science at the current EPA, new protocols that favor secrecy over transparency, and the decision to use part of the scant budget for a security team for Pruitt, not something that prior administrators have had. (The EPA did not respond to requests for comment from the Monitor.)

A similar scenario played out during the Gorsuch years as well, when EPA staff was reduced by 26 percent and its budget by 21 percent, according to the report.

Sellers sees a prime distinction between the two eras, however. In the Gorsuch era, Democrats had control of both houses and were a prime driver of the hearings that eventually uncovered scandals with how the EPA had mishandled the toxic waste Superfund and led to a broad turnover there. Today, Republicans have control of both houses. Congress’s decision to block Pruitt’s proposed budget cuts suggests that legislators may not necessarily be ready to give him carte blanche to shape the EPA, however.

One area where both critics and proponents of Pruitt’s EPA agenda can agree: States play an increasingly important role in most environmental monitoring, clean-up, and regulation these days. Trump fans like Milloy see this as yet another argument for why the EPA has outgrown its usefulness and should be far smaller, playing more of a coordination and advisory role.

In 1970, not many states had a good environmental department, says Milloy. Today, that’s changed. “Washington doesn’t need to dictate solutions to everybody.”

But whereas states like New York and California have been growing their governmental agencies and aren’t likely to be as affected by a shift in the national EPA, many other states have low capacity for environmental monitoring and enforcing regulations.

“There are places where the impact will be larger than in other places,” says the Earth Institute's Mr. Cohen. He wonders if it will take a real disaster – a failure to clean up a spill, or problems from Superfund sites in the wake of flooding like Houston saw – to raise environmental issues to the top of voters’ minds.

And he and others worry about the most basic result of Pruitt’s ideological shift: the lack of forward movement.

When it comes to environmental laws, “I think we have enough safeguards,” says Cohen. “The danger is that instead of advancing as we need to to keep pace with the technologies we’re introducing, we’ll be running as hard as we can to keep still.”

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