USA Today/THE NEWS-PRESS Washington bureau
By Ledyard King
February 7, 2017
WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency is facing its toughest test since the regulatory agency opened its doors in 1970 under President Richard Nixon.
President Donald Trump pledged on the campaign trail to foster job growth by gutting the agency and reining in its regulatory reach. The incoming EPA administrator, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, has sued the agency numerous times over environmental edicts. And a bill authored by Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz to abolish the EPA and end its “oppressive jurisdiction” is already drawing co-sponsors in the GOP-controlled Congress.
“I’m very worried,” said Christie Whitman, the former Republican governor of New Jersey who was EPA administrator under President George W. Bush. “They can’t do away with the agency but they can hamstring it and that puts people’s lives in danger. I would say this is probably the most challenging time that they’ve faced.”
Most believe the agency will make it to its 50th birthday. But many expect the agency’s federal footprint to be reshaped — and reduced — given the often unrelenting criticism the president and key congressional leaders have leveled at the EPA under the Obama administration.
That would please Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, the Republican chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, a climate change skeptic who has accused government scientists of manipulating data to exaggerate the effects of global warming.
“Far too often the EPA has deliberately used its regulatory power to undercut American industries and advance a misguided political agenda that has minimal environmental benefits,” Smith said at a committee hearing Tuesday entitled ‘Making America Great Again’ that took aim at the scientific process the agency uses to justify some of its more stringent regulations. He said panels advising the agency are often stacked with experts biased against business.
Florida GOP Rep. Bill Posey agreed.
“A lot of us have been concerned about this,” he said. “A lot of our citizens are threatened by a torrent of bureaucratic attacks that they don’t understand (but) that affects their lives and their livelihoods every day.”
But Virginia Democratic Rep. Don Beyer said attempts to politicize the environmental science of an agency that led efforts against acid rain, lead contamination and toxic pesticides was irresponsible.
“Please listen to the science community,” Beyer implored his Republican colleagues on the panel. “Climate change is real and environmental problems can’t be wished away because they’re going to affect us, our children and future generations.”
This isn’t the first time EPA has been under attack.
Ronald Reagan tried to undo much of Jimmy Carter’s environmental agenda but had to contend with a Democratic Congress. GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich took on the EPA as part of the “Contract with America,” but could only do so much with Bill Clinton in the White House. George W. Bush’s efforts to cut environmental regulations were slowed by moderates such as Whitman and Democrats on Capitol Hill. GOP lawmakers who have controlled Congress in recent years were stymied by Barack Obama.
Trump, by comparison is expected to face little resistance from a compliant Congress to reshape an agency he believes stands in the way of job creation. The push to transfer the agency’s regulatory power to states will likely increase while the money to enforce existing rules is likely to decrease, experts believe.
“If you’ve got a rule and nobody’s enforcing it, who cares?” said Eric R.A.N. Smith, a political science professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “And of course the regulations the EPA designs itself are going to be more pro-industry and less pro-environment than they have in the past.”
Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, who often talks about how climate change is hurting his home state due to rising sea levels, said efforts to roll back environmental regulations eventually will trigger a public backlash.
“What do the American people want? Do they want health care? Do they want clean water? Do they want to breathe clean air? Yes. You can go down the list,” he said. “And it’s because of what the people of Florida, as a reflection of America, want. It’s why I feel fairly confident that at the end of the day things will turn out alright.”
Public sentiment is on the side of the EPA, according to a recent IPSOS/Reuters poll released last month. The survey of 505 adults found that only 19% favor (including 31% percent of Republicans) weakening or eliminating the agency.
Paul Walker, executive director of ConservAmerica, a group of pro-environment moderates that is backing Pruitt’s nomination, say they’re hoping the agency’s relationship with states changes under Trump. Too often, he said, federal regulators failed to take individual state issues into account.
Illinois, for example, generated half its electricity through nuclear power which has zero emissions. Yet the EPA never factored that in when imposing clean air rules.
“And while ConservAmerica agreed with the Obama administration on the reality of climate change and the need for action, we constantly found ourselves at odds on what the right way forward is,” Walker said. “We think what Pruitt will bring is more of a collaborative federal and state relationship to address the issues.”
Pruitt is expected to win confirmation as EPA administrator as early as next week.
Whitman said she supports states’ rights to a point.
“When you have migration of pollutants, and Mother Nature has never cared about geopolitical boundaries, you have to have a federal presence,” she said. “Because everyone does have the right to have clean air to breathe and clean water to drink and that can’t happen in one state if the pollution is conning from another.”