By Malcolm F. Baldwin
In keeping with his campaign promise to “get rid” of EPA “in almost every form,” and with the confirmation of Scott Pruitt for U.S. attorney general, President Trump has signaled an intent to reduce immediately the funding, staffing and powers of the Environmental Protection Agency.
EPA has been the target of numerous lawsuits Pruitt has initiated as attorney general of Oklahoma. While perhaps unsurprising for this administration, the Pruitt plans to curb EPA’s enforcement, cut personnel, and delegate more authority to the states would reverse Republicans’ record of support for bipartisan federal leadership in combatting air and water pollution and other environmental threats.
President Nixon proposed the establishment of EPA in a reorganization plan sent to Congress in July, 1970, soon after the first Earth Day. That plan by Nixon’s new White House Council on Environmental Quality, strongly supported by White House Counsel John Ehrlichman (yes, the infamous John Ehrlichman of later Watergate fame), consolidated the air, water, and pesticide programs from three different agencies into a new EPA. The agency began work in December 1970, with a staff of more than 5,000.
Nixon fully recognized, indeed was largely motivated by, the political value of supporting environmental protection. After all, the Cuyahoga River around Cleveland had already caught fire, and citizens around the country had organized to observe Earth Day, spreading awareness of environmental issues among school children and citizens throughout the country. In Congress, meanwhile, Senator Edmund Muskie and the Congress—Republican and Democratic members alike—responded to these concerns with passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts to give EPA substantial regulatory clout, and to shape and oversee effective state pollution control programs that have continued ever since.
EPA grew under Nixon’s first EPA administrator, William Ruckelshaus, and it thrived over the next ten years. But then came Ronald Reagan, who had to learn some hard lessons about EPA’s value that President Trump might do well to study.
Like Trump today, Reagan sought to curb federal regulatory powers and return much environmental regulation to the states. He appointed a cadre of totally inexperienced EPA leaders in 1981, led by Administrator Ann Gorsuch—the mother of recent Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch—who had been a state legislator and lawyer for a Colorado telephone company. But within two years, Gorsuch was cited for contempt of Congress—with 55 Republican and 204 Democratic votes—for withholding documents from congressional oversight, and Rita Lavelle, Gorsuch`s assistant administrator overseeing the Superfund program (established after the Love Canal disaster), was headed to prison for perjury and misuse of Superfund money. In late 1983 Reagan brought back William Ruckelshaus to set EPA back on course.
More recently, EPA continued its regulatory work under both Bush presidencies and Clinton and Obama, enduring frequent budget and staff cuts, but without threats to its existence. Sufficient numbers of Republicans have consistently joined Democrats in understanding that Americans’ health and welfare require a federal agency to ensure nationwide environmental protection. Cuts in acid rain during the 1990s were followed up under George W. Bush’s first term with actions to reduce mercury emissions from coal plants. More recently, Obama’s EPA took major steps to curb the devastating impacts of mountaintop coal mining, to reduce air pollution from coal-fired power plants, and to monitor and reduce release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from fracking operations. Most notably, EPA has engaged vigorously, in cooperation with the Department of Energy to respond to the overwhelming scientific consensus (that Scott Pruitt has denied) that Earth is warming at a catastrophic rate and that human activities are to blame.
Today, thanks to EPA and the laws on which it relies, we don’t have rivers on fire, or evacuations from newly-discovered hazardous waste dumps (like Love Canal). The Potomac River on Loudoun’s northern border is fishable and swimmable and is no longer the open sewer it was 40 years ago. But the environmental challenges and investment requirements continue, as we learned from the lead poisoning of water supplies in Flint, Michigan.
Rather than assaulting EPA’s funding and authority, we now need to make EPA more efficient in achieving its mission by relying on those market-based mechanisms that can truly reduce regulatory costs while enhancing environmental benefits. Some notable Republican figures support this course. Recognizing the global warming reality, George Schultz, Henry Paulson, and James Baker have proposed a carbon tax instead of more regulations to reduce CO2 and provide funds to help low income citizens in the process—a proposal causing favorable editorials from both the New York Times and the Washington Post.
But all indications point to the Trump team’s preoccupation with deregulation and avoidance of market measures able to enhance environmental benefits and supplement regulations. Forgotten are lessons Republicans learned from the Nixon, Reagan, and Bush experiences: that America’s welfare and “greatness” require respect for the integrity of the Earth and on our capacity to integrate environmental protection into our economic and social policies at home and abroad. That result, along with pursuit of a happy future for our children and grandchildren, requires a revitalized, not a crippled, EPA.
Malcolm Baldwin began his career in environmental law in the mid-1960s when he joined The Conservation Foundation and co-authored a book on environmental law. He served in the White House Council on Environmental Quality starting in 1974 and left after serving as acting chairman in the initial months of the Reagan Administration. For the past 15 years of his career he worked and lived in developing countries to help protect their environment. He and his wife Pamela own WeatherLea Farm & Vineyard near Lovettsville.