Trump Prepares to Destroy the EPA
February 21, 2017
Rebecca Leber / Grist & Amy Davidson / The New Yorker
Scott Pruitt, Trump's choice to run the Environmental Protection Agency, was expected to sail through Senate -- possibly as soon as Friday -- despite Democrats' protests that he is unfit to lead an agency that he has repeatedly sued. Meanwhile a cache of documents that might show whether Pruitt was too compromised to deserve the job was due to be released in a few days. So why did Senate Republicans insist on rushing the confirmation vote before the requested document could be released to the public?
Trump Plans to Target the EPA with New Executive Orders
Rebecca Leber / Grist
(February 17, 2017) -- This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
Scott Pruitt will almost certainly be the next head of the Environmental Protection Agency. The Oklahoma attorney general's nomination is expected to sail through Senate -- possibly as soon as Friday -- despite Democrats' protests that he is unfit to lead an agency that he has repeatedly sued.
The administration has already imposed a freeze on the EPA's social media, halted its rulemaking, and reportedly mandated that all agency research be reviewed by a political appointee before being released to the public. But next week, once Pruitt is sworn in, the real frenzy will begin.
According to Reuters, President Donald Trump plans to sign between two and five environmental executive orders aimed at the EPA and possibly the State Department. The White House is reportedly planning to hold an event at the EPA headquarters, similar the administration's rollout of its widely condemned travel ban after Defense Secretary James Mattis took office.
While we don't know what, exactly, next week's orders will say, Trump is expected to restrict the agency's regulatory oversight. Based on one administration official's bluster, the actions could "suck the air" out of the room.
Trump may have hinted at the forthcoming orders in his unwieldy press conference on Thursday. "Some very big things are going to be announced next week," he said. (He didn't make clear whether or not he was referring to the EPA.)
Former President Barack Obama's array of climate regulations, including the Clean Power Plan limiting power plant emissions, are certainly high on conservative activists' hit list. So too is the landmark Paris climate deal, in which Obama agreed to dramatically cut domestic carbon emissions and provide aid to other countries for clean energy projects and climate adaptation.
The EPA's rule that defines its jurisdiction over wetlands and streams is also a prime target. As attorney general, Pruitt launched lawsuits against a number of these regulations.
"What I would like to see are executive orders on implementing all of President Trump's main campaign promises on environment and energy, including withdrawing from the Paris climate treaty," said Myron Ebell, who headed Trump's EPA transition and recently returned to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, in an email to Mother Jones.
H. Sterling Burnett, a research fellow the Heartland Institute, which rejects the scientific consensus on climate change, says Trump could start by revisiting the Obama administration's efforts to calculate a "social cost of carbon" -- and by forbidding its use to determine costs and benefits of government regulations.
He also wants to see broader restrictions on how the EPA calculates costs and benefits. In particular, Burnett hopes Trump will prohibit the agency from the considering public health co-benefits of regulations -- for example, attempts by the EPA to argue that limits on CO2 emissions from power plants also reduce emissions of other dangerous pollutants.
Or Trump could take a cue from Republican Attorneys General Patrick Morrisey (W.Va.) and Ken Paxton (Texas), who recommended in December that Trump issue a memorandum directing the EPA to "take no further action to enforce or implement" the Clean Power Plan. (The Supreme Court halted implementation of the rule a year ago while both sides fight it out in federal court.)
The holy grail for conservatives would be reversing the agency's so-called "endangerment finding," which states that greenhouse gas emissions harm public health and must therefore be regulated under the Clean Air Act. The endangerment finding is the legal underpinning for the bulk of Obama's climate policies, including the restrictions on vehicle and power plant emissions.
Undoing the finding wouldn't be an easy feat and can't be accomplished by executive order alone. The endangerment finding isn't an Obama invention; in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA must regulate greenhouse gasses if it found they harmed public health.
Pruitt said during his confirmation hearing that the administration wouldn't revisit the finding, but he also launched an unsuccessful lawsuit against it in 2010. Neither Ebell nor Burnett expects to see Trump to tackle the endangerment finding just yet.
Environmentalists are already planning their response. Litigation is certainly an option, but it would of course depend on the details of Trump's executive actions. Several groups, including Earthjustice and Natural Resources Defense Council, have already sued to block Trump's earlier executive order requiring that every new regulation be offset by scrapping two existing regulations. Their case: The administration can't arbitrarily ditch regulations just because the president wants fewer of them on the books.
They could be making a similar case soon enough. "A new president has to deal with the record and evidence and findings," Earthjustice's lead attorney, Patti Goldman, said. "If you take climate and the endangerment finding, that is a scientific finding that is upheld by the court. That finding has legal impacts. If there's a directive along those lines, there will have to be a process."
Of course, anti-EPA Republicans disagree about what is constitutional, which is one reason the agency is in for a tumultuous ride over the next four years. For many conservatives, no EPA at all -- or at least one that has no regulatory powers -- is the best option.
"I read the constitution of the United States, and the word environmental protection does not appear there," said Heartland's Burnett. "I don't see where it's sanctioned. I think it should go away." A freshman House Republican recently introduced a bill to do just that, but there's no sign that it's going to pass anytime soon.
And while Burnett acknowledges that the EPA probably won't be vanishing in the near future, he's been happy with the direction Trump has taken so far. He's pleased with the president's moves to restart the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines, and he's hopeful that the administration will move toward an EPA with "smaller budgets and a smaller mission, justified by the fact that you'll have fewer regulations."
Depending on what Trump does next week, that could be just the beginning.
Scott Pruitt, the EPA, and the
Republicans' Bargain with Trump
Amy Davidson / The New Yorker
(February 17, 2017) -- Given that a cache of documents that might show whether Scott Pruitt, President Donald Trump's choice to run the Environmental Protection Agency, ought to get the job is due to be released next Tuesday, why did Senate Republicans insist, over Democratic protests, on holding a confirmation vote on Friday?
Since there was only a holiday weekend in between, not much time would have been lost. And the documents, including e-mails on the contacts that Pruitt had with oil and gas companies in Oklahoma during a period in which, as that state's attorney general, he repeatedly sued the EPA and sought to block policies designed to address climate change, are directly relevant. (As Elizabeth Kolbert has written, the existing paper trail is already pretty damning.)
This wasn't some fishing expedition into an obscure or long-closed chapter of Pruitt's life. Nor was it a last-minute one: a judge in Oklahoma ordered that the state produce the papers in response to a long-stalled freedom-of-information request from a citizens' group, first filed in 2015, before anyone thought that Trump might win the election.
Senator Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, who introduced the measure that would have delayed the vote, called the unwillingness to examine the e-mails "an egregious cover-up," and it might well have been just that. The e-mails could show a conflict between Pruitt's private ties to an industry whose activities he would help regulate and his duty to the public.
But the Republicans, it turned out, weren't interested in any of that. After a session in which they mostly complained that the Democrats didn't seem to like anyone whom President Trump had come up with, they pushed the vote through, and Pruitt was confirmed, fifty-two to forty-six.
Only one Republican, Susan Collins, of Maine, voted against him. (Two Democrats -- Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, and Heidi Heitkamp, of North Dakota -- voted yes, presumably for reasons related to their states' fossil-fuel industries and the tough re-election campaigns that they face next year. John McCain missed the vote because he was travelling.)
No one else in the Republican Party seemed to question the wisdom of putting a man who has openly doubted the reality of climate change in charge of the agency most associated with efforts to combat it. Why not?
There are two answers to the question of why Republicans rushed Pruitt through, not mutually exclusive. One is that this is just another instance of something that has been seen repeatedly in the weeks since Donald Trump took office: the Republicans' floppy pose of deference to Trump.
They have let him do what he wants, for the most part, unless a shocking "Oprah" tape from the past comes back to haunt an already unfit nominee. (As William Finnegan has written, in that case, involving Andrew Puzder, the failed Labor Secretary nominee, the tape only stopped the senators when combined with his illegal household help and his crudely expressed disdain for working Americans.)
They hadn't stood up to Trump on his executive order barring entry to people from seven countries and to all refugees, despite the direct risk it posed to many residents of red states, not to mention to the Constitution. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan hadn't managed to say much more than that "regrettably, the rollout was confusing," as if he might have erased the insult to American values with a PowerPoint presentation and a can-do smile.
Their hurt speeches, on Friday morning, about how the Democrats didn't respect Trump's choices, came less than twenty-four hours after their President spoke casually about blowing Russian boats out of the water; accused his opponents of staging fake anti-Semitic attacks; questioned the legitimacy of the electoral system, the courts, and the media; and asked a black journalist, April Ryan, if the legislators in the Congressional Black Caucus were "friends" of hers, and if she could maybe set them up with a meeting with him.
This is a weak answer, in part because of what is at stake: not only America's air and water and its children's health but the future of the planet. Pruitt is so shameless a choice that former EPA employees who have served under Presidents from both parties sent a letter to the Senate expressing concern about his appointment, noting his demonstrated lack of interest in enforcing environmental laws, his stance on climate change, and his failure to demonstrate that he would "put the public's welfare ahead of private interests."
Then again, why would this Republican Party want to block Pruitt? This is the other answer: the senators pushed him through because they wanted to, for their own non-Trump reasons. He is, in many ways, more typical of where many congressional Republicans stand than Trump is, though Pruitt might express his views more crudely and with fewer circumlocutions than some. His ties to industry are, in many cases, their ties to industry, too. (Jane Mayer has covered the influence of the Koch brothers, for example, in this regard.)
When Ryan talks about dismantling the regulatory state, he is not far from Pruitt. Indeed, when asked about the influence of human activity on climate change, Ryan has said that he just didn't know what it all added up to, "and I don't think science does, either."
In a statement that Ryan issued in December, 2009, he accused certain scientists who did recognize the effect of using "statistical tricks to distort their findings and intentionally mislead the public on the issue of climate change."
He added that any rules restricting American industry in the name of fighting climate change would be a "tough sell" in Wisconsin, "where much of the state is buried under snow."
Similarly, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, tends to deal with climate change by saying that he is not a scientist. In the opportunistic calculations of the congressional Republicans, Pruitt may not even count as a price they have to pay, or a Trumpian burden to bear. To the contrary: he is their reward.
Amy Davidson is a New Yorker staff writer. She is a regular Comment contributor for the magazine and writes a Web column, in which she covers war, sports, and everything in between.
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