State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Save EPA

Steven Cohen, August 11, 2015 Photo by Bruce Gilbert
Read more from Executive Director Steven Cohen at the Huffington Post.

The Environmental Protection Agency has a new administrator. Though he has the technical skills and experience to run a small federal agency such as EPA, he has historically opposed many elements of that agency’s statutory responsibilities. In Scott Pruitt’s view, President Obama and the agency overstepped their authority, particularly in regulating greenhouse gases and in expanding their rule over clean water. But now Pruitt is administrator. Pruitt the lobbyist has become the senior partner in the firm. As an advocate, he focused his attention on what EPA was doing wrong, but as the leader of an agency suffering anxiety and low morale, he needs to focus on what EPA has done right and must continue to do right. He can continue to battle EPA or he can decide to lead it.

If the new administrator supports air, water and toxic pollution control and regulation—even if he wishes to streamline its administration—he should articulate his support. Earth Day is coming and that would be a perfect time for the new EPA administrator to articulate his positive vision of environmental protection. Pruitt knows that the day-to-day administration of environmental rules in America is largely delegated to state and local governments. The U.S. EPA articulates policy and handles quality control and interstate issues. These national standards are important because they provide consistency for businesses operating in many states and ensure that world class environmental and health science research backs up key standards. The elimination of national environmental standards would be illegal and ill-advised, and I doubt that we will see an effort to dismantle the structure of American environmental law. We won’t see it because it works and our businesses rely on consistent national standards. The evidence that they work is that our air and water are cleaner today than they have been since the middle of the 20th century.

While I don’t see us going too far backward, I’m afraid we are in for a period where little progress will be made. It is unfortunate that a number of recent environmental regulations will be upended by the Trump Administration even though they have not yet been implemented. It is shameful that the rule banning the dumping of coal mine waste in water was overturned with the argument that pollution prevention costs jobs. Coal can’t compete with natural gas and now the miners will be treated to both unemployment and polluted streams.

The balance of regulatory power between the federal government, states and business interests will move away from the federal government over the next several years. This can result in either catastrophic mistakes or, if done with care, more effective environmental protection. If nothing else, Flint’s water crisis demonstrated that national water quality standards are only meaningful if they are competently administered. President Obama’s EPA Region V had the authority to prevent that human-made catastrophe, but did not exercise that authority. On the other hand, the U.S. EPA regional administrator resigned over this failure, and so a small measure of accountability is still in place. Nobody should see EPA’s current system of delegation of authority and audit of regulatory implementation as a model of perfection. Negotiations are slow, follow up can be sloppy, and the system has many flaws. But replacing it with no rules would be a tragic mistake.

Despite flaws, American environmental law works. The new administrator has plenty of places he could focus on that would enable him to maintain national environmental standards, but administer them more effectively. The two big issues of the expansion of water regulation jurisdiction and greenhouse gas regulation are important, and while not merely symbolic, have elements of symbolism. Local waterways that have not been subject to Clean Water Act national protection have been the subject of political pressure at the state and local level and removing federal protection will focus environmentalist action on the state and local level. Unfortunately, in the places where that pressure does not exist, our children will pay the price for the inevitable clean-up that will come if a body of water is poisoned. We’ve stuck them with educational debt along with a large national debt, so I guess cleaning up toxic waterways is literally a drop in the bucket.

As for the Clean Power Plan, unless Pruitt thinks he can get a revision of the Clean Air Act through a filibuster in the Senate, the requirement to regulate greenhouse gases will remain unchanged. Over a decade ago the Supreme Court defined greenhouse gases as dangerous air pollutants and required EPA to regulate them under the Clean Air Act. The Obama plan set state targets for greenhouse gas reductions and left it to the states to define those reductions. It is not a job-killing, energy-destroying rule, but a vehicle for modernizing America’s aging energy infrastructure. Pruitt and his team might come up with a better idea, but it will need to demonstrate it can achieve reductions in greenhouse gases at a reasonably rapid rate. The Clean Power Plan is not a command and control regulation, but a method of setting state-by-state goals to reduce a form of pollution we didn’t understand when national air standards were first mandated in 1970. It’s flexible, gradual and practical. Many states will probably outperform the targets set in the plan as natural gas replaces coal all over the country and as rooftop solar continues to spread in the suburbs. It will not cost jobs, but create them, and will make our economy more efficient and competitive.

Administrator Pruitt has a chance to change the narrative and demonstrate that his conservative principles are consistent with the goals of environmental protection. If his goal is to dismantle America’s environmental regulation he will go the way of Anne Gorsuch Burford and Rita Lavelle, two of EPA’s top managers under President Reagan. They lasted about two years until the public understood that they were not advancing the goals of environmental protection. If Pruitt wants to streamline rules but retain the objective of environmental clean-up, he could succeed. But if he is simply an agent of the fossil fuel business, he will fail.

Up until now Pruitt has been an enemy of EPA, and his new employees and the environmental community are scared of him. I share their anxiety. Pruitt is far from my first choice as EPA administrator. But he is now in charge. A truism of bureaucratic politics first articulated during the Truman era argues that “where you stand depends on where you sit.” In other words, your perspective on issues depends to some degree on your position in the organization. In the case of Pruitt’s boss, we are still waiting for him to understand that he is America’s head of government and head of state, not a celebrity still running for president. In the case of Pruitt, his effectiveness will depend on his ability to make the pivot from advocate to administrator. He now sits in the administrator’s chair. He is responsible for all of America’s environmental laws and rules—the ones he likes and the ones he could do without. His oath requires him to faithfully execute those laws, not subvert them. He can and should improve their communication and implementation, though he can also go to the president and Congress to try to change them.

If he takes a wrecking ball to EPA and tries to destroy its capacity, he will discover the deep reservoir of support for a clean environment that exists everywhere in the United States. Support for environmental protection is strongest among young people, but even middle aged people like to breathe. If Pruitt attacks, the environmental community will rise up like an enraged beast to save EPA. On the other hand, if he balances his efforts to reform environmental policy with active and aggressive support of the national environmental programs he supports, and if he works to convert rather than humiliate the professionals working at EPA, he might succeed in updating an agency that would benefit from change.

Environmentalists know and fear Pruitt, and fossil fuel interests love him, but most Americans have no idea who he is. He has a relatively blank slate to write on and an opportunity to demonstrate that he is serious about environmental protection. He can be defined by the fossil fuel interests, the environmental community or his own perception of America’s public interest. It’s his choice. I hope he decides to save EPA, and serve the American people.


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