Donald Trump’s pledges to gut the EPA have set off alarms among the agency’s backers — including the Republicans who use to lead EPA and now are warning that the GOP nominee’s plan threatens to destroy the agency that has cleaned up the nation over the past half century.
Despite declaring himself a “huge believer in clean water and clean air,” Trump has promised to revoke environmental rules, “to get rid of [EPA] in almost every form” and to allow the states to decide how to regulate pollution. And his campaign has tapped Myron Ebell of the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute — who has criticized EPA as “the No. 1 job killer in America” — as the point person to lead the change if Trump wins on Nov. 8.
The former EPA chiefs under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush see the strategy as a disaster.
“All we’re doing is shoving ourselves back into where we were in the late ’60s,” said Bill Ruckelshaus, who became the first EPA administrator in 1970 and returned under Reagan during a turbulent period at the agency. “Rivers catching on fire, smog so bad you could hardly see one another. And those kind of problems would recur.”
Ruckelshaus came back to EPA in 1983, following a rocky two-year period in which his Reagan-appointed predecessor Anne Gorsuch Burford slashed the agency’s budget by nearly a quarter, relaxed enforcement of clean air and water regulations and allegedly mishandled the $1.6 billion Superfund, a controversy that led to a contempt of Congress charge and ultimately her resignation in the episode that became known as “Sewergate.”
Trump has called for cutting the EPA “because they are not doing their job and they’re making it impossible for our country to compete.” That’s in line with the calls from conservative groups that have previously called for significantly scaling back the agency and sending most regulatory and enforcement power to the states.
Bush’s first EPA chief, Christine Todd Whitman, predicted that many of the agency’s 15,000 employees would simply walk out of their jobs if Trump were to attempt major interference, such as trying to undo its conclusion that climate change poses a threat.
“To try to really move the agency away from its core mission would result in, I think, just a wholesale resignation within the agency,” Whitman said.
Ruckelshaus, along with George H.W. Bush EPA chief William K. Reilly, filed a court brief this year defending EPA’s Clean Power Plan, the regulation EPA issued last year that targets carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. Whitman supports the climate rule, and last week endorsed Trump’s rival, Hillary Clinton.
Trump says he would repeal most Obama-era environmental regulations, including the Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the U.S. rule — a regulation widely reviled by agriculture groups — and would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. More recently, a Trump aide said he would “refocus EPA on its core mission: clean air and clean water for all Americans, regardless of race or income.” Environmentalists contend that is precisely what the agency is already working on.
Ebell, who referred POLITICO’s queries to the Trump campaign, has been one of the most vocal opponents of Obama’s climate regulations, calling the carbon regulations “colossally expensive, blatantly illegal and totally pointless.” He’s blasted the Paris agreement as “potentially a disaster for humankind and not necessarily any good for the planet,” and in 2012, he told “Frontline” that “the so-called global warming consensus was not based on science, but was a political consensus.”
In 2002, when Bush administration’s EPA angered conservatives by issuing for the first time a report that linked global warming to human activity, Ebell recommended that the White House fire Whitman, the EPA administrator at the time. (Whitman, who sometimes clashed with the Bush White House, left the agency a year later.)
Even with GOP’s nominees decline in the polls this month, EPA’s supporters continue to be wary of the possibility of a Trump EPA.
“There’s no question that he could significantly damage the agency,” said Greg Dotson, vice president for energy policy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and a former longtime aide to retired Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).
Trump has also promised that his EPA would revisit a landmark 2009 scientific decision by the agency that formed the basis for its regulations targeting greenhouse gas emissions from cars, power plants and other sources. But undoing that “endangerment finding,” which concluded that carbon pollution presents a threat to human health and welfare, would be a difficult legal task — and would could provoke a number of protest resignations, Whitman said.
If EPA’s career staff “think for one instant that you’re not serious about protecting human health and the environment, they’ll let everybody know it and I can see them walking off the job,” she said. “You just can’t compromise them that way.”
Still, any legal battle by green groups against a Trump-led rollback on climate science would take years, pushing back the timeline for any efforts to fight climate change — and researchers say the planet has no time to waste.
“I think it would be quite difficult to un-ring the bell of the endangerment finding,” said one George W. Bush-era EPA official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But a different administration certainly could either relax or retract regulations, and then certainly slow-walk the release of any revised regulations.”
Perhaps the simplest way for a potential Trump administration to affect environmental regulations is by relaxing enforcement.
Political appointees could decide to slow-walk cases and make other policy changes, although that wouldn’t bring an immediate halt to any ongoing investigations, according to Doug Parker, the former career-level director of EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division. Plus, many Obama-era regulations are still in their early stages, meaning enforcement for rules like the Clean Power Plan, air quality standards or future vehicle emissions rules are still years off.
But gutting enforcement could also run political risks, since high-profile cases like the Flint water crisis and the Volkswagen cheating scandal have raised the profile of violations in the public eye, said Parker, who is now at the consulting group Earth & Water Strategies.
And he said the heightened political pressure at the agency could simply prompt many staffers to try to outlast a Trump presidency.
“If it is a Trump administration, there will be a hunkering down of many folks in the agency, folks who are really committed to the mission of the organization,” he said.
For Ruckelshaus, the lessons EPA learned from the attempted rollback of its mission during Reagan’s early presidency were clear — and he says Trump would come to regret any repeat.
“Some public health problem will emerge, and he’ll be forced to act,” he said. “And if he turns to an agency which he has purposely weakened … he would find a public uproar, just like occurred in the late ’60s, early ’70s.”
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