Whatever uncertainty there is about Donald Trump's actual agenda as president -- or more fundamentally about the legitimacy of his presidency -- there can be no doubt about his hostility to environmental protection and progress. Don't be misled by the reassuring words in his "America First Energy Plan," released just after his swearing-in, that "protecting clean air and clean water ... will remain a high priority."
Pay attention to what he does, not just what he says:
With Trump's nomination of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA"), the time to "wait and see" on the environment - to "give his Administration a chance to succeed" -- has quickly come and gone. Pruitt is no environmental watchdog. He's a polluter's dream, and he's the wrong person to run EPA.
Fifty years ago, our cities were choking in smog, and our rivers and streams were fouled with poisons - a product of the misguided mantra "dilution is the solution to pollution." Climate change - now considered the greatest environmental threat to the planet -- was on no one's agenda. Beginning in 1969, we enacted a series of environmental laws to protect our water, air, species, health, and a host of other natural resources, and in 1970 we created the EPA to implement them. Now, two generations later, we've seen dramatic improvement in the quality of our air and water to an extent unsurpassed anywhere in the world.
None of this would have been possible without EPA's oversight and its singular focus on protecting the environment from the degradation that threatens our health, our natural resources, and our quality of life.
Enter Scott Pruitt, Trump's choice to become the country's top environmental regulator. He appreciates none of this history, and he has no apparent environmental accomplishments of his own; indeed, he's renowned for attacking EPA and its work, through lobbying and litigation on behalf of the oil and gas industry and other big polluters. If he could be any less qualified to lead the EPA, it's difficult to see how.
He's an outspoken climate change skeptic who, as Oklahoma's Attorney General, disbanded the office's Environmental Protection Unit and replaced it with a special "Federalism Unit" to challenge EPA pollution control measures. He's one of the leading opponents of President Obama's principal environmental initiative - the Clean Power Plan to address global warming -- including in litigation to block the regulation of power plants, the largest source of heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions in the country. Last year, he also sued to block EPA rules to protect rivers, streams, and wetlands under the Clean Water Act, including streams relied on for drinking water by one in three Americans.
In fact, over the past five years as Oklahoma's top law enforcement officer, he has filed at least 14 lawsuits against EPA - also opposing federal actions to control mercury, arsenic, ozone, and other air toxics that poison our communities and especially our children. Among these cases, he has prevailed in only one. And when asked following his nomination to be EPA Administrator if he would recuse himself from an ongoing role in any of the legal challenges still pending against EPA, he declined to do so.
He's a longtime friend of the oil and gas industry, even allowing lawyers for one of the largest oil and gas producers in his state to draft a letter to EPA for his signature critiquing the agency's air pollution controls. Although in recent years his state has experienced a record number of earthquakes, he has done nothing as Attorney General to regulate the oil and gas fracking that scientists agree has caused them. Under questioning at his confirmation hearing, he expressed his concern but could cite no actions - indeed, no public statements at all - directed to fixing the problem. Of over 800 press releases issued by his office during his tenure, not one has been found that reflects action taken to protect the environment, while at least 50 focused on his actions against EPA.
He defends his record by arguing that EPA's proper role is to delegate environmental regulation to the states, but his own record in Oklahoma discredits that view. While he has opposed EPA's efforts to regulate smog-causing ozone, for example, every single Oklahoma county surveyed has been rated an "F" for ozone problems by the American Lung Association. Soon after he assumed office as Attorney General, he took over a protracted legal challenge to manure pollution illegally caused by large-scale chicken production operations. In contrast to his predecessor's aggressive stance, Pruitt accepted a sweetheart settlement of the litigation for a commitment to study the problem.
In fact, his argument about states' rights is a descendant of the discredited rationale used by southern states in the 1960's to justify local control of - and inaction to address - racial discrimination. In this context, "let the states handle it" is a transparent euphemism for allowing the continuation of illegal activity that is inimical to significant national interests. Civil rights, social security and medical care, immigration rights, and environmental protection, to name a few -- all have required federal intervention and oversight precisely because they involve national protections that the states have been unable or unwilling to secure.
Similarly, his assurance that he simply intends to elevate "cooperation" by EPA over regulation shows his failure to appreciate why EPA was created in the first place - and why he deserves to be rejected. The agency was established - and our environmental regulatory structure enacted - because relying on the willingness of polluters to do their part wasn't getting the job done, resulting in rampant pollution and countless premature deaths and illnesses. As Mr. Pruitt surely knows, a strong EPA, focused on regulatory oversight, is the only way to secure meaningful polluter compliance. It's a truism as old as the hills that a fox should never be left to guard the henhouse.
Don't let Scott Pruitt do to the country what he's done to the people of Oklahoma. He would be a disaster for our environment, and his nomination should be rejected by the Senate.
But whatever that Trump-controlled body decides, we need to recognize and communicate what this particular choice portends for the anti-environmental, anti-regulatory, anti-science, pro-polluter future of the Trump Administration. After a campaign that barely mentioned the environment, the electorate may be dismayed to find that undermining pollution and public health standards - a polluter's wish-list - lies at the heart of the new Administration's to do list. "Ignore climate change, roll back pollution controls, approve the Keystone XL pipeline, revive the Pebble Mine, abandon regulatory oversight" - and turn EPA over to Big Oil's best friend. Say what he will about prioritizing clean air and water, Donald Trump's inevitable impact - his true agenda - will be to "make America polluted again."
The Natural Resources Defense Council will oppose any attempt by the Trump Administration to take us backward. Now, more than ever, it's time to stand together in defense of our environmental progress and fight relentlessly for the quality of life that all of us need and deserve. The massive women's marches around the globe this past weekend conveyed that message loud and clear.
Stand up, speak out, and be heard.
Tell Trump "no" on his nomination of Scott Pruitt." Write your Senators. Take action now.