No part of the government has been untouched by the Trump revolution. Multiple Cabinet departments are headed by people opposed to their core missions, the judiciary is being transformed at an unprecedented rate, and thanks to the new tax cut, even the sacred cows of Medicare and Social Security are now in line for legislative slaughter.
But nowhere is the takeover clearer than at the Environmental Protection Agency, now headed by Scott Pruitt, who made his name suing the watchdog on behalf of fossil-fuel interests. In one year, Pruitt has destroyed the foundations of the agency, firing scientists and replacing them with industry lobbyists; undoing critical regulations that protect our air and water; and favoring industry interests over public health.
The trajectory is clear: Prioritize polluters’ freedom over personal freedom, health, and environmental protection. Here are the top 10 worst actions Pruitt’s EPA has taken in 2017:
Pruitt is probably the most suspect member of the Trump administration, which is saying a lot. At his confirmation, he lied to Congress (a felony) about his private email account, which he used for communicating with industry representatives. When he served as Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt was discovered to have simply cut and pasted a letter written by oil giant Devon Energy onto his own stationery.
And then there’s the money. Since taking office, Pruitt racked up $58,000 in taxpayer-paid travel bills for flights to and from Oklahoma (where he is rumored to be mulling a Senate run in 2020), often on the flimsiest of pretexts. The EPA’s inspector general is investigating.
Pruitt also spent $40,000 of taxpayer money to fly to Morocco to promote fossil fuels. (How that counts as “environmental protection” is anyone’s guess.) And he retained a shady PR firm that has previously done “opposition research” on journalists, at the cost to taxpayers of $120,000—a contract voided when the news of it broke.
9. Slashing the Budget to “Tidbits”
The EPA is, in large part, a law-enforcement agency. Yet can you imagine any other law-enforcement department slashing its budget by more than 30 percent in one year? The result is a deliberate anarchy as polluters know the EPA can’t (and doesn’t want to) do its job. Enforcement actions have dropped by more than 30 percent from Obama administration levels, and more than 20 percent from George W. Bush levels. Demands that polluting factories clean up their act have plummeted nearly 90 percent. The cops are just not walking the beat.
For example, Superfund enforcement—i.e., making polluters pay for cleaning up the toxic messes they’ve made—has been cut 37 percent, causing many cleanups to simply stop altogether (PDF). In 2017 alone, programs that have been completely eliminated include those that reduce radon in schools, control runoff pollution from roads, and certify lead-paint-removal contractors, among many others. And that’s by design: Candidate Trump promised to eliminate all of the EPA, leaving only “tidbits.” Pruitt is his hatchet man. But even these budget cuts don’t include the largest shrinking of the agency...
8. Hollowing Out the Agency
It’s not just EPA’s budget being cut—it’s the agency itself. More than 700 employees have left or been forced out. That’s just the beginning: Congress is set to appropriate $60 million to buy out the contracts of EPA staff, whose positions will be eliminated. Many high-level enforcement jobs remain vacant.
Other key posts have been filled by former industry shills, like Nancy Beck, a chemical-industry lobbyist who’s now ostensibly in charge of regulating toxic chemicals. Whistleblowers have reported a culture of fear and suspicion, with longtime staffers assumed to be disloyal to the new regime.
Elgie Holstein, senior director for strategic planning at Environmental Defense Fund, told The Daily Beast these cuts are motivated not by budgetary concerns but by opposition to the EPA’s core mission. “It’s easy to think of it as reducing bureaucracy,” Holstein said, “but when you consider the fact that EPA is such a small agency to begin with, with a budget that’s basically what it was in the 1970s (adjusted for inflation), it’s pretty clear that further reductions in staff is all part of a strategy to undermine and hollow out EPA as an effective public health agency.”
7. Disaster Failure
One of the most stark examples of the EPA’s incapacity came after Hurricane Harvey, when the unfolding storm disaster caused factories to release nearly 6 million pounds of pollution into the air. The EPA was slow to respond, but quick to issue a press release congratulating itself. In one case, a chemical plant exploded, triggering evacuations, and the EPA was found to have simply not shown up at the scene until after the explosion happened.
By coincidence, the EPA had just withdrawn the Chemical Disaster Rule, which would require companies to disclose which hazardous materials they had on site. That withdrawal didn’t affect the Houston response, but it indicated that the next such disaster might be even worse; the EPA is not a disaster-response agency—its value comes from monitoring risks over the long term, which now it won’t do as efficiently.
This will only get worse. Global climate disruption has already increased the frequency of extreme weather events. If the EPA’s budget is slashed by a third, and if climate change is not allowed to be spoken of, let alone factored into risk analysis and resource allocation, Harvey is just a tiny taste of what is to come.
You wouldn’t know the EPA is a public agency from Pruitt’s unprecedented secrecy. He has demanded that employees not take notes at meetings with him, ordered a denial of Freedom of Information Act requests, and implemented gag rules that ban staffers from talking about a host of environmental issues. Until pressured, he refused to release his meeting calendar—not surprisingly, given what it reveals (see No. 5).
And once again, there’s the enormous waste of money. Pruitt has retained his own round-the-clock security detail, costing taxpayers $830,000. No EPA administrator has ever done that. He also installed a secure phone booth in his own office for $33,000, and special locks that cost $6,000.
The reason for all this secrecy is obvious…
5. The EPA Is Now an Industry Puppet
As he did in Oklahoma, Scott Pruitt is taking his orders from the polluters he’s meant to regulate. The New York Times recently tracked who Pruitt met with on a single day, April 26: top executives from a coal-burning utility, the board of a huge coal-mining company, and lobbyists from General Motors. No environmental or public health groups.
The remainder of the six-month period the Times examined was similar: chemical manufacturers, Shell Oil, truck manufacturers, the National Mining Association, Oklahoma oil lobbyists; not to mention the Koch brothers-funded American Legislative Exchange Council and CropLife America, a trade association run by pesticide manufacturers.
The effects of these close contacts have been obvious. Sometimes, they’ve been plums handed out to specific companies, like the aforementioned Devon Energy, which had agreed to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties for illegally emitting 80 tons of toxic pollution each year—until Pruitt simply voided the settlement and let it go with a slap on the wrist.
More often, the effects are far broader...
4. Regulatory Rollback
Pruitt’s EPA has eliminated regulations that:
- Verified emissions from a company’s industrial expansion are what the company says they are. (Now the EPA will simply take estimates at face value.) (PDF)
- Blocked a potentially disastrous mining operation in Alaska’s Bristol Bay. (The mine will now go forward, though a single leak could devastate the world’s largest sockeye salmon population.)
- Required the tracking of methane emissions (this decision was overturned by the Supreme Court).
- Required data collection of emissions from oil and gas companies.
- Monitored fracking.
- Required companies to disclose which hazardous chemicals they’re storing.
- Protected tributaries of sensitive bodies of water (even though the EPA’s analysis showed it would cost less to prevent the pollution than to allow it). (PDF)
- Set tighter emissions standards for trucks.
- Banned the toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos.
Still under rollback review are restrictions on smog, coal ash, mining waste, mercury, and benzene pollution. Even the popular Energy Star appliance certification program has been slated for reduction.
3. The Clean Power Plan
Power plants account for approximately 35 percent of U.S. carbon emissions. Without tackling power plants, you can’t address climate change. And without unified federal action, you can’t address power plants.
The “Clean Power Plan” was born on Aug. 3, 2015, when it was finalized by President Obama’s EPA, and it died on March 28, 2017, when President Trump called for a “review.” To no one’s surprise, in October, the EPA recommended a total repeal.
It’s hard to overestimate how important and game-changing the Clean Power Plan was. It called for a 32 percent reduction in power-plant carbon emissions by 2030. It offered incentives for investment in renewable energy, creating thousands of jobs. It set state-by-state targets that took into account each state’s unique needs. And now it’s dead.
2. The War on Science
In the era of alternative facts, it’s no surprise that science, the scientific method, and scientists have all come under attack at Pruitt’s EPA.
To take one example, Pruitt’s climate denialism (more on this later) defies the unanimous consent of the scientific community, choosing the fake science of fake think tanks like the Heartland Institute, which regularly churns out bogus scientific reports to create the perception that there is significant disagreement about climate change.
Another example was Pruitt’s decision that scientists who have received EPA funding within three years can no longer serve on the agency’s 12 scientific advisory committees. While that may sound like a smart conflict-of-interest provision, its actual effect will be to exclude the majority of scientific experts from serving on the committees, and to replace them with industry “experts” instead.
For good measure, Pruitt has also defied economics as well. In fact, renewable energy generates more jobs than fossil fuel energy, but Pruitt endlessly repeats the lie that regulatory rollbacks are needed to save jobs.
All this has happened away from the spotlight. “To the average person,” said Holstein, the EPA “seems like a murky government agency and nobody really knows how it works. But everyone who is familiar with it knows that its science and technology capabilities are at the heart of its success in protecting all of us from pollution.”
1. Climate Change Denial
Finally, in terms of real-world consequences, there’s nothing that tops climate change. The World Health Organization estimates that 250,000 people will die each year between 2030-2050 from factors directly attributable to climate change. That doesn’t even count the mass migration crises that rising sea levels and changing crop zones will bring about. There is full scientific consensus that human emissions are warming the planet; over a five-year period, 928 peer-reviewed articles affirmed this fact, while zero opposed it.
Pruitt has stuck the EPA’s head in the scientific sand. The phrase “climate change” has been erased from the agency website. Any offices working on climate change have been closed or reassigned. Pruitt has even created a blacklist of EPA employees who had worked or published on the issue. Meanwhile, Pruitt claims to have advised Trump to withdraw from the Paris accord on climate change, which he did, even though the rest of the world has signed it and is moving forward without the U.S.
Nor is Pruitt alone. His chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, was previously the chief for Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, who calls climate change a “hoax.” Pruitt has also hired Inhofe aide Byron Brown to serve as his deputy.
Pruitt has gotten in a little trouble for these actions. After stating on CNBC that “I would not agree that [carbon dioxide] is a primary contributor to the global warming that we see,” the EPA inspector general referred the matter to the EPA’s scientific integrity officer, Francesca Grifo, since EPA officials are required to reflect scientific consensus in their comments. (In response, a right-wing group demanded an investigation of Grifo.)
But there’s little that can stop Pruitt’s anti-science crusade, absent congressional action, which, with the present Congress, seems highly unlikely. After going through some of this litany with the EDF’s Holstein, I asked him if there was anything that any of us could or should do.
Holstein said the most important actions to watch for in 2018 may be in the obscure realms of budget cuts and regional office closures. “There are also a lot of things we’ll be looking at in terms of whether administration will lower the hurdle for pollutants, reduce enforcement at EPA and at the Justice Department, and try to dial the budget down at NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which often studies climate change] and other science agencies.”
When I asked if there was any hope, given the awful news from 2017, Holstein took the long view. “What I say to people who want to give up is: Don’t do it,” he said. “We have built over the last 40 to 50 years a bipartisan national legacy of bedrock environmental protections and safeguards and we should fight for them. The fact that President Trump and Administrator Pruitt would like to help polluters avoid responsibility doesn’t change one bit the fact that we have nearly a half century of national and public commitment to a cleaner environment and healthier communities.”
Besides, Holstein added, “we have a great deal at stake.”