Bush Administration EPA Chief Urges Caution In Cutting Regulations

Morning Edition
Rachel Martin (host)
March 2, 2017

Rachel Martin speaks with Christine Todd Whitman, who led the Environmental Protection Agency under George W. Bush. She responds to President Trump’s plan to roll back regulations and cut EPA funding.

Transcript:

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Trump this week ordered a review of an Obama-era environmental rule that would have protected streams and wetlands. And in his speech to Congress, President Trump made clear he wants to target other measures.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We’re going to stop the regulations that threaten the future and livelihood of our great coal miners.

MARTIN: That, presumably, a reference to the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan to regulate carbon emissions from coal-fired plants. Meanwhile, President Trump is preparing a budget that would reportedly cut funding for the Environmental Protection Agency by 24 percent. Our next guest led the EPA under another Republican president, George W. Bush. She is former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, and she joins me now. Thanks so much for being with us.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: Oh, I’m delighted to be with you.

MARTIN: President Trump’s new EPA administrator, Scott, Pruitt recently said that people would be justified in wanting to see his agency abolished altogether, the EPA, because of its impact on jobs. Is that a fair critique? Has the EPA been a job killer at points?

WHITMAN: No. I mean, if you look at the history, from 1990 to 2012, we saw a population increase in our country. We saw a power demand increase and power usage increase in our country of some 30 percent. We saw our real GDP more than double at the same time that we reduced our criteria pollutants in air quality by over 60 percent. So we have shown that this is not a job killer. There are other reasons. When President Trump says he’s going to roll back regulations to get coal going again and bring back thousands of jobs for miners, the reason coal is losing is not because of environmental regulations.

It’s because it’s innovation that’s driving them out. We’re getting more efficient, doing it with less. But it’s also the low cost of natural gas. So you have to understand there’s going to be a trade-off here of – to human health and the environment. Can you say regulations have gone too far the other way? Certainly, the last administration relied heavily on executive orders, and that made a lot of people mad. And you can take another look at those. There’s nothing wrong at taking a look. But to say you’d be justified in wanting to do away I think is incorrect.

MARTIN: The EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, says he wants to get the agency back to the basics of keeping air and water clean. He said he wants to prioritize cleaning up Superfund sites, which is a politically popular position. I realize you didn’t serve in the Obama administration, but do you think that the previous administration neglected things like cleaning up Superfund sites, cleaning up air and water and instead focus too much on climate change caused by greenhouse gases?

WHITMAN: No, no, I think they were very focused on air and water as well. You know, climate affects the water. Climate affects air as well. Unfortunately, it’s become such a politicized topic that when you mention it, that’s all people focus on. But they didn’t slack off that. They just did a lot more on the controversial area of climate change.

MARTIN: Do you think that the federal government has done a good enough job of regulating greenhouse gases?

WHITMAN: Well, we’re just starting to really get into that. It wasn’t too long ago that you had the endangerment finding by the United States Supreme Court that said, in fact, carbon is a threat to our health and to the environment, and that’s decided by law. That’s – the Supreme Court has said that. The EPA has no choice once there’s an endangerment finding but to regulate. And that’s because of the laws that set up – that created the agency. This is what Congress wanted them to do. It gave them a timeline within which they have to do it when certain findings become available.

And so they’re doing what they were required to do by law. So it’s something that we can’t just ignore and walk away from. I prefer to talk about it from the perspective of human health rather than climate change ’cause climate change has become so fiercely partisan. But this is all about keeping people healthy and keeping our environment healthy.

MARTIN: Before I let you go, I do want to get your take on the president’s proposal to cut the EPA’s budget reportedly by about 24 percent. Do you think that that’s a good idea? Can that help make the agency more efficient, or would that hamper what the EPA is supposed to do?

WHITMAN: Oh, I think it would definitely hamper, and that’s part of the reasoning behind it. What it would do is cut enforcement, among other things. But they have to be a little careful here because there are numerous programs supported by the EPA in grants that go directly to the states and the municipalities for clean air and for clean water to help them mitigate the issues that they have. They like those dollars. If you cut the agency by 20-24 percent, you’re going to see a reduction in those monies flowing out, and that’s going to cause a backlash amongst his constituents.

MARTIN: Christine Todd Whitman served as governor of New Jersey. She was also at – the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency from 2001 to 2003. Thank you so much for talking with us.

WHITMAN: My pleasure, good to talk to you.