Donald Trump & Scott Pruitt Have Made the EPA a Battleground over Environmental Policy

by Sokolove Law

Many people knew this battle was coming shortly after Donald Trump publicly denounced the “War on Coal” as part of his administrative agenda. Following his election, Trump has been determined to take down the Clean Power Plan, a policy the Obama administration designed to help combat global warming.

Scott Pruitt, who Trump nominated to head the EPA, sued the agency 14 times when he was Attorney General of Oklahoma. Now that he’s in control of the agency, he is destroying the role the EPA has served for decades in protecting public health.

Conservatives have been battling the EPA and its supposed “overreach” for years, but now corporations can return to polluting the air, water, and land as recklessly as they did in the past. With public health in peril, Americans must fight to save the EPA from those who are bent on driving the country off an environmental cliff.

A Tale of 2 Factions

A recent episode of the PBS show Frontline detailed Trump and Pruitt’s assault on the EPA. The program featured an interview with Betsy Southerland, a former top EPA official who criticized Pruitt for not heeding facts from scientific research, and only following the wishes of fossil fuel corporate executives. Regulations Southerland spent years developing to limit toxic output from coal fired power plants were quickly dismissed by Pruitt, who only listened to petitions from a group of energy companies and small businesses. These corporate interests argued the regulations were too taxing and did not fit with Trump’s campaign promises to cut such rules.

Two sides are now emerging at the EPA: the experts who have worked there for years, and Trump appointees who treat these experts dismissively, and do not consult them on agency matters. Southerland resigned earlier this year with a critical letter describing how lifetime EPA employees were trying to craft scientific arguments that would make Pruitt listen to reason. Their logic fell on deaf ears, as Pruitt’s attention went to fossil fuel executives who contributed to his PAC funding. 

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Smashing the Yardstick

The Clean Power Plan was 1 way the United States was going to meet its responsibilities under the Paris Climate agreement, but Trump removed the country from that worldwide accord in June. The Plan would have radically lowered emissions from power plants that use natural gas and coal, and called for a 32 percent reduction by 2030 from 2005 levels. Those critical of the plan suggested that wind and solar energy would have to be subsidized by state governments as they weaned off coal.

But the Plan had been blocked by the Supreme Court last year due to challenges from 27 states and fossil fuel companies. The Court ruled that the Obama administration could not implement such changes to emissions standards. Pruitt, who has called climate change a “hoax,” joined other Republican attorneys general in suing the EPA over the Clean Power Plan. He has favored controlling emissions at individual plants, which would only lower emissions by 2 to 4 percent.

The Plan’s repeal has been cheered by fossil fuel industry executives, while the rest of the nation unleashes a resounding cough. Trump appointees at the EPA have not indicated when they will issue a new rule regarding CO2 emissions, though they seem to be moving with little haste. The plan must be replaced by another policy, since the EPA sets controls on the emission of carbon. That need for regulation was determined by the EPA’s endangerment finding in 2009, and it has since been supported by a Supreme Court verdict.

Those who were in favor of Clean Power Plan argued it would have prevented 1,700 heart attacks, 90,000 asthma attacks, 300,000 days missed from work and school because of respiratory problems, and 3,600 early deaths.

Before the ink has dried on Trump’s signature, however, environmental groups are readying legal challenges to his ill-advised, and illness-creating, repeal.

Prepare the Gas Masks

Trump appointees to the EPA have stopped or delayed the enforcement of many environmental regulations, yet these policies are not difficult for new administrations to change drastically.

For example, the Obama administration had formed agreements with the auto industry in 2012 to increase average fuel efficiency. While slightly over a quarter of greenhouse gases created by the United States come from transportation, a little over half of that is caused by cars and trucks. After Trump was elected, industry officials complained the new standards were too costly for the domestic auto industry. Pruitt has promised the regulations will be relaxed in the future, and he wants to decrease fuel economy standards for commercial trucking.

While under the Obama administration, the EPA and other government agencies used the idea of a “social cost of carbon” to indicate expected savings from avoiding problems related to climate change (such as droughts and sea level shift). These costs were based on examining how the economy would be affected by changing weather patterns from global warming. Based on their calculations, the Clean Power Plan would have led to the industry spending $8.4 Billion, but that investment would have amounted to $54 Billion in health and climate benefits.

The Trump administration has ordered federal agencies to use cost guidelines that are 14 years old, and were conceived before the savings that would come from slowing climate change were taken into account. While the Obama administration calculated a cost of $36 for each ton of carbon, the Trump administration has adjusted that figure to $1 to $6 per ton. Their estimates do not account for the worldwide effects of carbon, allowing the Trump administration to justify a much less ambitious carbon reduction plan, and cheerfully ignoring the global effects of pollution.

Further, the Obama administration had adopted regulations requiring fossil fuel companies to monitor methane production from oil and gas wells and fix methane leaks. While methane is far more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide, Pruitt was part of lawsuit with other states and fossil fuel companies to block this regulation. He has now delayed implementing the methane rule for 2 years, and indicated that companies operating these wells don’t have to report methane emissions.

This is only 1 of many Obama-era rules that are now in a state of purgatory, waiting to see if they will be enforced. Courts have stopped the Trump administration from slashing environmental rules 3 times thus far, but even if Trump and Pruitt can’t wreak as much environmental havoc as they would like, they will undoubtedly succeed in their plan to delay CO2 emission reductions.

We Have Only Just Begun to Fight (Back)

While Trump and Pruitt seem determined to create a future that looks like a sci-fi, dystopian wasteland, Americans are pushing back. Both Democratic and Republican governors across the country have been fighting the withdrawal from the Paris Climate agreement, vowing to support the standards of the accord in their own states.

Mayors from across the country have acted similarly, mirroring the growing public alarm at how Trump and Pruitt have so easily dismissed the dangers posed to our climate, our country, and our world. This anger is heartening for those of us who prefer not to inhale toxins and who appreciate clean water, but it will be a long time before we can literally or figuratively breathe easy.

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