BATTLE LINES

Is Trump Trying to Kill the EPA, or Just Starve It?

Neither alternative is green, but two very different shades of brown are emerging within the Trump administration.

03.16.17 1:42 PM ET

The Trump administration’s internal battle over the environment is shaping up, with some surprising combatants on both sides—and a giant question mark in the middle, in the shape of the president himself, who this morning proposed a 30 percent cut in the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget.

On one side are the pragmatists, such as Defense Secretary James Mattis, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee that climate change is real and confirmed that the Pentagon has been factoring into its strategic planning for years. Perhaps surprisingly, former ExxonMobil CEO and present Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—who used the pseudonym “Wayne Tracker” and a secret email address to talk frankly about climate change while Exxon was still denying it—is also among the pragmatist wing.

While neither Tillerson nor Mattis have any formal authority over the EPA, Tillerson in particular is respected by the president, and both of their departments rely on EPA climate science.

On the other side are the ideologues: Steve Bannon, with his goal of “deconstructing the administrative state,” and EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, including his inner circle. 

Pruitt’s chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, was previously the chief of staff for Sen.James Inhofe, who calls climate change a “hoax.” Pruitt has also hired another Inhofe aide, Byron Brown, to serve as his deputy. It’s been rumored that Pruitt will run for Inhofe’s seat when he retires in 2018, leaving Brown or Jackson set to run the EPA.

If the ideologues prevail, there is the very real possibility that the EPA will be functionally eliminated.  Pruitt said that “people look at the EPA the way they look at the IRS,” and has staffed the agency with political appointees who seem better suited to dismantling the agency than managing it. Certainly, that is also a subtext of President Trump’s ominous executive order directing all agency heads to identify departments and programs to be axed as part of a “reorganization of the Executive Branch.” 

Total elimination, however, would require congressional approval, which remains the wild card. Will enough GOP members of Congress really line up to zero out the EPA, presumably farming out some of its functions to other agencies but eliminating an agency still popular with Americans, if not with Republican donors?

It’s more likely that the skeleton of the EPA, and even most of its programs, will remain intact, with massive cutbacks but without a total shutdown. So far, this seems to be the predominant direction. The Trump administration has proposed “zeroing out” all climate-related programs and eliminating two of EPA’s 10 regional offices.

And yet, one EPA source told The Daily Beast that this was actually a somewhat positive outcome, because at least the administrative structure and institutional memory would be maintained. Although no progress would be made for four years, at least the agency would be primed to resurrect itself under a Democratic administration.

Given that, it’s not surprising that longtime employees are just trying to keep their heads down. For example, one environmental speaker invited to share findings with an EPA office told The Daily Beast that he was instructed to omit the words “climate change” from his talk and abstract.  

This wasn’t the result of a formal policy change, like Florida’s banning the term back in 2005. Rather, it seems to have been a reluctance on the part of the EPA office to be associated with climate change, as opposed to other issues. After all, if you’ve got a portfolio of issue areas, why draw attention to yourself by focusing on the controversial one?

Some longtime EPA employees, however, have no choice but to jump ship. Mustafa Ali, who has led the agency’s environmental justice program since the George H.W. Bush administration, stepped down last week, faced with the almost certain prospect of his program being eliminated entirely. That program has focused on areas like Flint, Michigan, which because of their economic, racial, and political makeup face a disproportionate amount of environmental hazards. 

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As very real as environmental racism actually is, it’s hard to see Ali’s program lasting long under Trump, Bannon, and Pruitt—not to mention Ali’s own status as a Muslim working for the most anti-Muslim American administration in history.

There have also been significant reductions in regulations by executive order. Trump has already suspended the “Waters of the United States” rule, which protected the 60 percent of stream-miles in the United States that only run seasonally; downstream rivers are protected by the Clean Water Act, but now the sources of those rivers may be polluted without regulation. He has authorized the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines, which had been held up by concerns over water pollution. And it is widely expected that he will soon overturn regulation of coal-fired power plants and the emissions standards for automobile pollution.

Another key area to watch will be research. Like the National Institutes of Health, the EPA is a leading funder of scientific research. If it pulls the plug, the effect on American science more broadly would be devastating. And there are signs that this is taking place. According to sources inside the EPA, Pruitt’s team as also issued an agency-wide work stoppage, halting all research, communications, and grantmaking. For example, the EPA withdrew an Obama-era request for data on methane emissions, one of the leading causes of climate change.  

Moreover, a planning document created by the EPA transition team suggested that the EPA get out of the research business altogether, which would decimate environmental science across the country. And it’s notable that the EPA’s Global Climate Change Research Program, created in 1990, is among the first programs slated for elimination according to the Trump budget proposals. Other specific eliminations include funding to help states cut pollution from diesel engines, climate mitigation help for Alaska Native communities, and even the National Sea Grant College program, which helps people living in coastal areas recover from storms and floods.

On the other hand, it’s possible that Trump’s team will merely alter the direction of research, rather than eliminate it altogether. For example, it might use much more conservative numbers for estimating environmental damage, such as the Social Cost of Carbon metric, which could be radically scaled back rather than eliminated altogether. 

Or it might subject any research to political review. The Trump team unintentionally signaled as much two months ago, when a junior communications official said that scientific data would be reviewed by political staff prior to being released. The comment was quickly walked back, but in retrospect looks like the canary in the coalmine.

Even these more moderate steps, though, would move the EPA into Trump’s post-truth era. After all, this isn’t regulation—it’s science. And yet science is often the enemy of politics, particularly in the area of climate change, in which Pruitt recently parroted the industry line  that “measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact, so no, I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.”

That is a demonstrably false statement, directly contradicted by fully 100 percent of peer-reviewed scientific articles on climate change, as well as the incontrovertible correlation between CO2 emissions and global warming. In fact, 11 of the 12 hottest years on record occurred between 2001 and 2011, and this past winter, the North Pole was 50 degrees warmer than normal. Even if there were legitimate disagreement as to the causes of this change, the facts are there in black and white.  

In fact, there is no “tremendous disagreement” on climate science—only a multibillion-dollar fossil-fuel-industry-sponsored campaign of fake science, run by the same fake science group, the Heartland Institute, that led the campaign to lie about the effects of tobacco.

(One example: Last year, the Heartland Institute, whose leading funders include ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, and Philip Morris, put out a colorful poster last year showing “58 experts [who] don’t believe global warming is a crisis.” At the time, I checked the résumés of all 58. Turns out only three have any credentials in climatology or atmospheric science. Sixteen are conservative political pundits, 11 are meteorologists, six are conservative economists, and the rest a hodgepodge.)

But if actual scientific research is curtailed, all that will be left is alternative facts. And alternative facts work. Just as one-third of Trump supporters believe in the nonexistent Bowling Green Massacre, so too, as of last October, only 48 percent of Americans “believed” what 100 percent of peer-reviewed climate science articles stated: that the climate is changing due to human activity. And that has largely tracked partisan affiliation. 

The greatest wild card of all, of course, is Donald Trump himself. Trump has denied climate change, accepted climate change, and said we need more study about climate change. His secretary of State was once the head of the leading climate-denying company in America, but his alter ego has accepted the scientific consensus. It’s possible that Trump’s family members, or even climate-concerned celebrities, might hold sway over the president as well.

In the meantime, EPA staffers are experiencing a whole lot of fear, uncertainty, and doubt.  Their jobs, after all, hang in the balance.  For that matter, so is the planet.