By Jeremy Symons
While running for president, Donald Trump threatened to virtually eliminate the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), leaving only “little tidbits.”
Scott Pruitt, Trump’s EPA administrator, has been tasked with the job of tearing down the agency from within. This is the man who sued the EPA 14 times—with strong financial backing from companies seeking to weaken clean air and clean water standards—when serving as Oklahoma’s Attorney General.
The president has used deception to reassure the general public that critical environmental laws will continue to protect public health and he is now taking our country in a dangerous direction.
Here are five ways he and Pruitt will go about weakening the agency responsible for keeping our air clean, drinking water safe and toxic chemicals from harming our families:
1. Gut the EPA’s Budget
Deep budget cuts at the EPA are being proposed under the guise of fixing budget issues.
In reality, the agency accounts for a mere two-tenths of one percent of federal spending. Any claim that major budget issues can be dealt with on the back of such a small sliver of the budget is false.
Instead, the proposed budget cuts are a clear signal to a narrow group of special interests and supporters who share Trump’s disdain for the EPA because environmental regulations don’t serve their agenda.
2. Relax Enforcement Against Illegal Pollution
Leaked budget documents show that Trump has already directed the EPA to curtail pollution-monitoring and get states “to assume more active enforcement roles.” But this isn’t about states’ rights; it’s merely a convenient cover for gutting federal enforcement responsibility without any assurance that states will pick up the slack.
In fact, Pruitt took Oklahoma in the opposite direction as attorney general by shutting down the state’s environmental enforcement unit.
Meanwhile, delegating enforcement to states puts everyone at the mercy of neighboring states’ enforcement. Almost every state has communities that are downwind or downstream from polluters across state boundaries.
3. Roll Back Pollution Standards
“The future ain’t what it used to be at the EPA,” Pruitt explained in a fiery speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington shortly after his contentious and narrow confirmation by the Senate. He went on to pledge he would “roll back the regulatory state.”
President Trump has already issued an executive order seeking to weaken Clean Water Act protections for American rivers and streams. With Pruitt now at his side, he is expected to next take aim at rolling back standards that reduce toxic emissions from cars and power plants.
Trump says he is slashing federal clean air and water standards to ease what he calls “job-crushing regulations.” Of course, increasing pollution does not grow the economy.
4. Use Misinformation to Justify Political Agenda
During his confirmation hearing, Pruitt ran away from his anti-environmental record and assured senators that he was “concerned” about pollution contributing to climate change, that mercury “should be regulated” and that ground-level ozone is “a dangerous pollutant.”
Once he had been confirmed as EPA administrator, his tone changed back to his roots. Pruitt is already a ready partner to Trump when it comes to spreading misinformation and denying climate change.
Political interference in science will come in many forms, but the most dangerous may be an effort to permanently meddle with the EPA’s scientific capacity under the guise of “reforming” the scientific process. Such meddling is a top Trump transition goal, according to Myron Ebell, the head of Trump’s EPA transition team.
Ebell makes no bones about it: The objective, he’s said, is to permanently cripple the agency’s capacity to bounce back under future presidents.
5. Surrender to Allow “Sue and Pollute” Lawsuits
We expect Pruitt and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to take up a new practice of surrendering to “sue and pollute” lawsuits in court. That would abandon the legal defense of EPA rules against suits brought by some polluters who would rather fight in court than invest in cleaner technology.
Pruitt may even take the unprecedented step to refuse to recuse himself from overseeing decisions about lawsuits that he himself brought against the EPA as Oklahoma’s attorney general—conveniently switching sides from plaintiff to defendant.
The question now is how Pruitt and Trump will contend with growing opposition as they walk the tightrope between broad public support for the EPA’s mission while serving the narrow interests of those who want to permanently weaken the agency.
If we remain vigilant and demand accountability from our elected officials, we can make every step they take along that tightrope more strenuous than the last.