The Trump Administration has demonstrated a great deal of high-visibility incompetence, from foreign policy pronouncements to relations with the Republican-controlled U.S Senate. But its attack on environmental regulation is noticeably low key and could have more impact than some of Trump’s more high-profile actions. Last week, New York Times reporters Coral Davenport and Eric Lipton filed a report focused on Pruitt’s secretive style of decision making. According to Davenport and Lipton:
As he works to roll back regulations, close offices and eliminate staff at the agency charged with protecting the nation’s environment and public health, Mr. Pruitt is taking extraordinary measures to conceal his actions, according to interviews with more than 20 current and former agency employees.
It will take a long time and many years of court battles before these attacks on environmental regulation have significant substantive impact, but the anti-regulatory approach articulated by Pruitt could embolden those who might find it convenient or profitable to ignore environmental rules. Even more significant will be the loss of professional capacity and the brain drain that is already starting to affect EPA. This dismantling of the “administrative state” is a principle goal of the Steve Bannon-Scott Pruitt wing of the Trump Administration. EPA could lose the ability they now have to manage complex technical and legal initiatives to clean up toxics, control pollution, and protect natural resources. Simply put, with their work under attack and their morale sinking, people will try to leave the agency. The most talented people in EPA will have the easiest time leaving and finding employment elsewhere; this will leave behind a demoralized group of less talented people without the ability to leave. For the “alt-right,” this creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of a mediocre group of bureaucrats clinging to what remains of their former “glory.”
Bill Ruckelshaus, EPA’s first Administrator, and the agency’s savior after the disastrous reign of Anne Gorsuch, Ronald Reagan’s first EPA chief, was quoted in the Times piece expressing concern for the style and substance of the Trump Pruitt EPA:
“Reforming the regulatory system would be a good thing if there were an honest, open process,” he said. “But it appears that what is happening now is taking a meat ax to the protections of public health and environment and then hiding it.” Mr. Ruckelshaus said such secrecy could pave the way toward, or exacerbate, another disaster like the contamination of public drinking water in Flint, Mich., or the 2014 chemical spill into the public water supply in Charleston, W.Va. — while leading to a dearth of information when such events happen. “Something will happen, like Flint, and the public will realize they can’t get any information about what happened or why,” he said.”
Ruckelshaus understands that the danger with deregulating environmental protection is that the outcome is real, visible and dangerous. The air, water and land becomes contaminated and people notice. Environmental protection does not happen by magic. In the United States, our environmental improvements over the past several decades have been the result of enormous effort by every level of government along with interest groups and private companies. Over time, we have developed a set of expected behaviors by each participant in the nation’s system of environmental governance. There is standard setting, research, negotiation, and action. The result of this has been a growing economy accompanied by a cleaner environment. Removing EPA’s research and enforcement capacity would disrupt this successful system and endanger our health and the quality of the environment.
The Trump Administration seems to be assuming that people will accept any type of environmental damage, as long as some jobs are created in the process. They may learn the hard way that Americans do not believe they need to trade-off economic growth and environmental protection. Republican Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin may be learning that lesson right now. Recently, he and President Trump appeared to have attracted Foxcon, the Taiwanese electronics company, to build a factory that would employ 3,000 people. However, as New York Times reporter Julie Bosman recently reported:
… the project has run into doubts. Residents of southeastern Wisconsin, where the factory is expected to be built, say they are concerned about the impact of such a massive factory in the region. Environmental advocates have criticized the administration of Mr. Walker, a Republican, for its willingness to bend regulations on the environment so that Foxconn can move more quickly on construction. In Madison, the state capital, a legislative package that includes taxpayer-funded incentives for Foxconn has drawn questions from skeptical lawmakers…
The Wisconsin legislation would exempt the company from adhering to rules protecting wetlands and from requirements to develop an environmental impact analysis for the massive project. Locals are concerned about the impact of the project on environment, local infrastructure, and their lifestyles. Wisconsin has a number of urban areas that could be the site for such a factory, but this particular plant will probably be built in a rural setting.
The attack on EPA and the effort to exempt Foxcon from environmental rules is a fundamental misread of the American public. Americans in poll after poll evidence their strong support for environmental protection. Even though they do not need to, they will sacrifice economic growth to protect the environment. Millennials are the most fervent advocates of environmental protection.
In theoretical and ideological national policy debates, partisans can propose deregulating the environment, reducing social security benefits and taking Medicaid from grandma. At the local level, the rubber meets the road. The factory leaks toxics into your backyard. The traffic from 3,000 new workers keeps you from getting to work on time. The school system is suddenly over-crowded. Grandma can’t get her medications and gets sick. The reality of vague ideological proclamations cannot be wished away.
Scott Pruitt can do the bidding of his wealthy patrons and may well set himself up to run for statewide office back in Oklahoma. But in secret or in public he won’t be able to dismantle environmental rules. He will lose in court on process and on substance. But the forces that hope to protect the environment will end up using all their resources to simply stand still. Just when we need it the most, progress will become more difficult in mitigating climate change, protecting the oceans and replanting tropical forests. We will continue to move forward, but Trump and Pruitt will make it more difficult than it needs to be.
From 1981 until 1983, then-President Ronald Reagan learned that Americans like to breathe. He learned that environmental protection was not a frill, but an issue of public health. His administration’s two-year experiment with dismantling America’s then young system of environmental governance ended with the arrival of Bill Ruckelshaus in May, 1984, at EPA’s ramshackle headquarters in DC’s Waterside Mall. Over three decades later, we again see EPA and the Department of Interior led by people who like the benefits of environmental protection, but believe it can be obtained without cost. But 2017 is not 1981. We live in a more crowded country. In 1981 we had 226 million people; today we have another hundred million on top of that. We live in an observed world of free and instantaneous information. Wrecking the environment cannot be done in secret. EPA is not alone; we now have strong state and local institutions designed to ensure our air, water and land are safe from toxics. At some point, Pruitt’s secret deliberations will require public release of rules or other visible actions. At that point he will learn what his predecessors learned in the spring of 1983.