More than a few of President Donald Trump’s appointees to key cabinet posts hope to diminish — or even shutter — the very agencies they now lead.
In the 2012 primaries, Texas Governor Rick Perry famously said that he wanted to abolish the Department of Energy. Fast forward five years, and he’s now the Secretary of Energy. Betsy DeVos is a staunch supporter of private and charter schools — so long as they are unfettered by government oversight — but she has been a loud and vocal critic of public schools in America, and her many provocative statements sent ripples of fear through the educational community. DeVos is now Secretary of Education.
And then there’s Scott Pruitt, the nominal head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt can be judged not only by his words, but by his deeds, and there’s little doubt that he is at odds with the organization where he now directs policy. He’s on record as a vehement climate change denier and, as Oklahoma’s attorney general, he sued the EPA more than a dozen times as the agency fought to limit emissions of smog, mercury, and greenhouse gases.
Overturning Obama’s environmental legacy
Every environmental activist has been girding for an epic battle. If the early days of this administration are any indication, it promises to be a tumultuous time at the agency that is supposed to keep America’s air and waters free of harmful pollution.
For his part, Pruitt wants to return to an era before coal, mining and oil companies were hampered by onerous regulations. He would prefer his success be measured by the number of Obama’s environmental regulations he rolls back; regulations that he believes make it harder for companies to do business. He also wants individual states to decide which regulations to enforce, arguing that the previous administration’s top-down approach was killing industry.
Since his appointment in February, Pruitt has met stiff opposition at every turn. It’s not a surprise that environmental groups would be on the offensive. But it might surprise many to learn that Pruitt is finding deep resentment and resistance within the very agency that he heads. In order to enact his agenda at the EPA, he will have to overcome the experts and committed career bureaucrats who work for him — who understand the science of climate change and the need for urgent action.
One of the fiercest blasts came earlier this month from Elizabeth Southerland, a senior scientist who ended her 30-year career at the agency with a scathing review of Trump policies, and bemoaning the ascendancy of myth over science.
“The truth is there is NO war on coal, there is NO economic crisis caused by environmental protection, and climate change IS caused by man’s activities,” writes Southerland in her resignation letter. She added that dozens of regulations already scrubbed from the books will hurt Americans where they live, drink and breathe, and argues that potential budget cuts will make the agency nothing more than a hollow shell.
Eight months of tough advocacy
Outside the agency, environmental activists have been outraged by Pruitt’s appointment from day one, condemning his confirmation in terms like “a sad day for the country” and the “stuff that Big Oil’s dreams are made of.”
The Sierra Club went one better. In March, after Pruitt denied that carbon dioxide emitted by fossil fuel combustion was driving climate change, the environmental group launched a formal complaint with the EPA’s Office of the Science Advisor claiming that Pruitt had flouted the department’s Scientific Integrity Policy by knowingly spreading misinformation.
The charge failed. In early August, Pruitt was cleared of wrongdoing by the Office of the Science Advisor, which cited a key but terse passage from the Scientific Integrity Policy in rendering its decision.
“The freedom to express one’s opinion about science is fundamental to EPA’s Scientific Integrity Policy even [and especially] when that point of view might be controversial…”
It’s made many wonder what is going on at the EPA, since Pruitt’s contention is as tendentious as suggesting that microbes don’t cause disease or that smoking doesn’t cause cancer. The scientific consensus that anthropogenic global warming is advancing at a dangerous pace is overwhelming. Sophisticated, accurate computer models and thousands of peer-reviewed scientific studies all point in the same direction.
Mixed messages from the EPA
Many wonder if politics might already be in play. Think Progress curiously notes that the Scientific Integrity Policy wasn’t fully quoted in publicizing this decision. A fuller reading provides ample evidence that the issue is more nuanced than the Office of the Science Advisor has suggested.
When an Agency employee substantively engaged in the science informing an Agency policy decision disagrees with the scientific data, scientific interpretations, or scientific conclusions that will be relied upon for said Agency decision, the employee is encouraged to express that opinion, complete with rationale, preferably in writing. It is expected that any differing scientific opinions will be resolved during internal deliberations and if not, will be addressed during scientific peer review.
The document further explains that when an EPA employee publically disagrees with established policy, he or she must indicate that they are speaking as a private citizen and that their contentions are not official agency positions.
Pruitt failed to meet either of these requirements, so environmentalists held this decision up as proof that the EPA is slowly being dismantled from the inside.
Certainly, the evidence supports this claim. With the White House mired in constant, wide-ranging controversies, a number of important stories have only garnered passing note. But this administration, and Pruitt, have been very busy.
Open war on science, climate change
Interestingly, the opening salvo against environmental legislation came after Pruitt was tagged for his new post, but before he could be confirmed. The White House launched a war on science — and, by extension, President Obama’s environmental legacy — by scrubbing all mention of climate change from its official website. In the months since, that imperative has spread like a contagion to several government websites, including the Department of Energy, Department of the Interior, and the EPA.
Once Pruitt was confirmed, he joined the White House efforts to dismantle onerous legislation designed to curtail carbon emissions. The most momentous switch for the Trump administration was largely symbolic as the president announced that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. Though many Republicans applauded the news, a full withdrawal from the accord can only occur in four years, and may be reversed in November 2019 if Trump fails to win reelection.
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