The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!
By Brian Palmer
As a candidate for president, Donald Trump made exaggerated promises tailor-made for his base. One of those was a vow to eliminate the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) "in almost every form." In its most literal sense, the idea seemed ludicrous. "Trump's campaign vow to eliminate the EPA was farcical and naive," said John Walke, director of NRDC's Clean Air Project. "The laws of the United States prevent him from carrying it out, and the vast majority of people in Congress and the country disagree with doing so."
But nearly one year into the Trump administration, what the president actually can do is becoming apparent. Trump is not trying to literally close down the EPA—or the U.S. Department of the Interior, or any other government unit tasked with protecting the natural environment. What he is trying to do is change them so dramatically that they will be completely unable to carry out their intended roles.
Misrepresenting Their Missions
Trump's appointees to head the DOI and the EPA regularly claim they are refocusing their agencies on the "core mission" but then proceed to distort what those core missions actually are, setting the stage for allocations of resources that serve Trump's agenda instead of the environment.
When Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke announced the administration's plan to cut his department's budget by 12 percent, he said, "This budget overall speaks to the core mission of the Department of the Interior. It funds our highest priorities—safety, security, infrastructure."
Since when? "The department's mission is the sustainable management of land and waters," explained Bobby McEnaney, senior deputy director of NRDC's Western Renewable Energy Project. "There's no mandate about security and safety being integral to the DOI's structure." Safety, security, and infrastructure are buzzwords from the Trump campaign, referencing his promise to build a border wall and expand fossil fuel production. But while ostensibly the domain of the Department of Interior, those projects are not its mission, let alone its core mission. Just visit the agency's webpage:
"The Department of the Interior protects and manages the Nation's natural resources and cultural heritage; provides scientific and other information about those resources; and honors its trust responsibilities or special commitments to American Indians, Alaska Natives, and affiliated island communities."
Over at the EPA, Administrator Scott Pruitt rarely attempts to define the agency's core mission; he seems to think it has something to do with Superfunds. In announcing his list of high-priority cleanup sites, Pruitt said such projects would be "restored to their rightful place at the center of the agency's core mission."
Mitigation of toxic accidents is undoubtedly a part of EPA's purpose, but there's nothing in statute or regulation that suggests cleaning up messes is more central than preventing them in the first place. The EPA's core mission is protecting our health and our environment. Regulating air pollution, addressing climate change, and minimizing the use of harmful pesticides are all central parts of EPA's mission, and the country relies on the agency to produce science and rules to protect us from those threats. By talking only about cleanups, Pruitt is diverting resources from prevention.
Personnel cuts and shrunken budgets have been major features of the first year of Trump. The administration makes specious claims that this is part of an effort to reduce bureaucracy and improve efficiency. At the Department of the Interior, Zinke described his plan to cut personnel by up to one-third in some parts as an effort to "downsize the middle and headquarters management."
Sounds shrewd—except for one thing: Interior has never had a top-heavy structure. "The vast majority of DOI is based in the regions," said McEnaney. "For the size of its mission, the department is clearly understaffed in the D.C. headquarters."
Pruitt tried similar subterfuge. He called his plan to slash the EPA budget and decimate staffing an attempt to "reduce redundancies and inefficiencies." But when he took his case to Congress for review, even Republicans recognized that the budget would "significantly reduce or terminate programs that are vitally important." Regional offices, like EPA Region 5 in the Midwest, immediately pointed out that there was no way to carry out their basic duties—including Superfund cleanups—at the staffing levels Pruitt is pursuing.
The real reason behind these attempted personnel cuts is plain: to rid the agencies of expertise and experience and to remove the people who know how to keep our environment clean and prevent Trump's industrial supporters from having their way with our air and water. And sadly, it's working. The loss of expertise is particularly acute at the EPA, where new environmental regulations are built on the lessons of the last generation of rules. Experience in that iterative process is essential to drafting effective new regulations.
"We are witnessing an unprecedented brain drain from the EPA due to departures by experienced officials and employees," said Walke. "The administration is showing no signs of plans to backfill those departures with new hires. Even if they could, it's impossible to replace that degree of brain drain in the near future."
Centralizing Decision Making
Those in right-wing politics profess to love local control. For example, when Trump announced his plan to shrink the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante national monuments, he quipped, "Some people think that the natural resources of Utah should be controlled by a small handful of very distant bureaucrats located in Washington."
The irony: Trump's appointees regularly demonstrate that they seem to believe this, too. DOI staffers around the country traditionally have broad latitude in shaping federal policy in their regions, and the skeleton crew of senior administrators in Washington traditionally relies heavily on the expertise and input of regional staff.
Zinke has reversed that tradition. "The monuments review was done exclusively by a small group of people in Zinke's office," notes McEnaney. "The same was true of the sage grouse conservation review."
At the EPA, sources indicate that career staff aren't being included in meetings, and sometimes they only learn of major decisions in the press. "It's the opposite of the way things have worked in both Democratic and Republican administrations, where there was an orderly process by which the staff experts reported to political heads of a program office, with instructions and information sharing back and forth," said Walke.
In addition, the EPA is required by both statute and tradition to collect and respond to public comments before making changes to regulations. But Pruitt's EPA has shown contempt for that process. The most glaring example was in November, when the agency held a hearing in West Virginia on the fate of the Clean Power Plan. The crowd was overwhelmingly in favor of keeping the rule in place, reflecting the general public support for the Clean Power Plan. Even in states that are suing for its repeal, the public favors the regulation. But Pruitt's procession toward repeal shows no care for the public's concerns about the EPA's many deregulatory actions that will result in unhealthy air, contaminated water, and damaged ecosystems. An attendee at the November meeting described the hearing as a "farce."
It's not all doom and gloom. Trump can decimate the agencies that protect our health and environment, but they will come back. Over the long term, the laws of the U.S.—the statutes passed by Congress, like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, that are supposed to guide the administration's actions—put conservation first, often regardless of the business interests of polluters, and courts will hold the Trump administration to those obligations.
"I expect to win a lot of lawsuits over the next four years," said Walke.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
georgeclerk / E+ / Getty Images
By Jennifer Molidor
One million species are at risk of extinction from human activity, warns a recent study by scientists with the United Nations. We need to cut greenhouse gas pollution across all sectors to avoid catastrophic climate change — and we need to do it fast, said the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
This research should serve as a rallying cry for polluting industries to make major changes now. Yet the agriculture industry continues to lag behind.
"The Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism wishes to inform the public that following extensive consultations with all stakeholders, the Government of Botswana has taken a decision to lift the hunting suspension," the government announced in a press release shared on social media.
Company Safety Data Sheets on New Chemicals Frequently Lack the Worker Protections EPA Claims They Include
By Richard Denison
Readers of this blog know how concerned EDF is over the Trump EPA's approval of many dozens of new chemicals based on its mere "expectation" that workers across supply chains will always employ personal protective equipment (PPE) just because it is recommended in the manufacturer's non-binding safety data sheet (SDS).
By Grant Smith
From 2009 to 2012, Gregory Jaczko was chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which approves nuclear power plant designs and sets safety standards for plants. But he now says that nuclear power is too dangerous and expensive — and not part of the answer to the climate crisis.
By Brett Walton
When Greg Wetherbee sat in front of the microscope recently, he was looking for fragments of metals or coal, particles that might indicate the source of airborne nitrogen pollution in Rocky Mountain National Park. What caught his eye, though, were the plastics.
In a big victory for animals, Prada has announced that it's ending its use of fur! It joins Coach, Jean Paul Gaultier, Giorgio Armani, Versace, Ralph Lauren, Vivienne Westwood, Michael Kors, Donna Karan and many others PETA has pushed toward a ban.
This is a victory more than a decade in the making. PETA and our international affiliates have crashed Prada's catwalks with anti-fur signs, held eye-catching demonstrations all around the world, and sent the company loads of information about the fur industry. In 2018, actor and animal rights advocate Pamela Anderson sent a letter on PETA's behalf urging Miuccia Prada to commit to leaving fur out of all future collections, and the iconic designer has finally listened.
If people in three European countries want to fight the climate crisis, they need to chill out more.
"The rapid pace of labour-saving technology brings into focus the possibility of a shorter working week for all, if deployed properly," Autonomy Director Will Stronge said, The Guardian reported. "However, while automation shows that less work is technically possible, the urgent pressures on the environment and on our available carbon budget show that reducing the working week is in fact necessary."
The report found that if the economies of Germany, Sweden and the UK maintain their current levels of carbon intensity and productivity, they would need to switch to a six, 12 and nine hour work week respectively if they wanted keep the rise in global temperatures to the below two degrees Celsius promised by the Paris agreement, The Independent reported.
The study based its conclusions on data from the UN and the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) on greenhouse gas emissions per industry in all three countries.
The report comes as the group Momentum called on the UK's Labour Party to endorse a four-day work week.
"We welcome this attempt by Autonomy to grapple with the very real changes society will need to make in order to live within the limits of the planet," Emma Williams of the Four Day Week campaign said in a statement reported by The Independent. "In addition to improved well-being, enhanced gender equality and increased productivity, addressing climate change is another compelling reason we should all be working less."
Supporters of the idea linked it to calls in the U.S. and Europe for a Green New Deal that would decarbonize the economy while promoting equality and well-being.
"This new paper from Autonomy is a thought experiment that should give policymakers, activists and campaigners more ballast to make the case that a Green New Deal is absolutely necessary," Common Wealth think tank Director Mat Lawrence told The Independent. "The link between working time and GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions has been proved by a number of studies. Using OECD data and relating it to our carbon budget, Autonomy have taken the step to show what that link means in terms of our working weeks."
Stronge also linked his report to calls for a Green New Deal.
"Becoming a green, sustainable society will require a number of strategies – a shorter working week being just one of them," he said, according to The Guardian. "This paper and the other nascent research in the field should give us plenty of food for thought when we consider how urgent a Green New Deal is and what it should look like."
- Reduced Work Hours as a Means of Slowing Climate Change ›
- How working less could solve all our problems. Really. | ›
- Needed: A shorter work week – People's World ›