In a move that could leave U.S. environmental protections in jeopardy, President-elect Donald Trump has named several entrenched fossil fuel lobbyists to lead the transition teams for both the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency. Those choices, experts say, suggest that Trump plans to make good on some of his campaign promises, which have included loosening environmental regulations in favor of oil, gas, and coal development — and at times, calling for the wholesale elimination of the E.P.A. — the primary agency through which President Obama, among other things, articulated his climate change agenda.
Among the new powerbrokers is Myron Ebell, an outspoken skeptic of fundamental climate science with the Washington D.C.-based think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute. Ebell, who has been assigned to lead Trump’s E.P.A. efforts, has attacked most every energy policy under President Barack Obama, and he is a provocative choice says Andrew Hoffman, a professor at the University of Michigan who studies the implications of environmental issues for business.
Of course, provocative moves, Hoffman adds, aren’t all that surprising in Republican politics.
“This is reminiscent of the early Reagan years and the ways he tried to stop E.P.A. by putting Anne Gorsuch Burford in charge,” says Hoffman. Burford was Reagan’s appointee for the top EPA job, and she became infamous in environmental circles for her attempts to dismantle the agency after she was sworn into the post in 1981. Reagan himself had teetered between indifference and hostility in his views on the environment, and the E.P.A. — at the time just over a decade old as a federal agency — appeared to be on the chopping block.
“There is no riper pasture for regulatory reform than E.P.A.,” Burford, who died in 2004, was quoted as saying in a history of the agency. She added that “excessive regulations, burdensome paperwork for industry and government, federal-state friction, and huge costs at a time of increasing economic stringency … were clear signs that change was needed in the 1980s.”
Over her tenure, Burford cut the E.P.A.’s enforcement budget by more than 45 percent and promoted voluntary compliance by industry. Regulations like the timeline for toxic waste disposal were relaxed. She regularly held closed-door meetings with industry. But after an investigation by the Democratically controlled Congress into Burford’s leadership of the agency, including her refusal to hand over documents related to Superfund cleanups, Burford was forced to resign from her post.
The pushback from the public, the media, and Congress converged to rein-in Burford, Hoffman says, and the same could happen should a Trump appointee try to go on a deregulation spree.
That’s not to suggest that Trump can’t do some real damage, Hoffman says — particularly given that he will enjoy a fully cooperative and similarly deregulation-minded Congress in both chambers, where Burford faced a Republican Senate but a Democratic House.
That prospect has environmental activists, climate scientists, and a variety of other public health stakeholders deeply concerned.
“What’s going to happen to environmental regulations during the Trump Administration? I don’t think anybody knows. But there are some early indications that the Trump administration will de-regulate rather than regulate polluting industries,” says Bruce Lanphear, a professor at Simon Fraser University who studies the effects of environmental neurotoxins on children’s health. “That would be unfortunate.”
In an open letter to President-elect Trump published late Thursday, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island and a staunch advocate for action on climate change, urged Trump to consider his legacy, listen to sound advice, and recall that he, too, once advocated for action on climate:
I am gravely concerned about climate change. You campaigned as blissfully unconcerned. As President, you will hear from our military and all our national labs and from NASA (the folks who put a rover on Mars and may know a little bit about real science) how deadly serious this is. Listen to them. There is a grown-up world of people beyond the creepy alt-right and the fossil fuel industry who actually know what they are talking about. You may go to any major university and confirm what they will tell you. You have responsibilities as President. Remember the full-page ad you signed in the New York Times in 2009 calling for strong climate action. “We support your effort,” your ad said to the Obama administration, “to ensure meaningful and effective measures to control climate change, an immediate challenge facing the United States and the world today. Please don’t postpone the earth. If we fail to act now, it is scientifically irrefutable that there will be catastrophic and irreversible consequences for humanity and our planet.” The signatories did not include just you, but your children, Donald, Jr., Eric, and Ivanka. Their future and their reputations are in your hands too.
Similar sentiments are percolating across the environmental advocacy communities, many of them deeply worried about rollbacks of regulations that protect clean air and water — and they are girding for a fight.
“Water and public health are not partisan issues – Americans won’t stand for a President who attacks landmark laws like the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts,” said Bob Wendelgass, the president and chief executive of Clean Water Action, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group, in a statement released Wednesday. “Over the next few months we will mobilize our members from across the nation, and the public, to be ready to push back on the Trump administration’s attempts to weaken protections for our water, climate, and communities.”
That sort of galvanizing rhetoric is one reason why Hoffman believes an aggressive, Burfordesque assault on the E.P.A. will be difficult to pull off, even for a fully empowered Trump. “I don’t think he can do a hard U-turn with the E.P.A.”
For starters, the environmental movement is stronger than it was 35 years ago, and Hoffman thinks the backlash to a Trump appointee who is bent on scaling back environmental protections could be stronger, too. It would be difficult, for example, to dissolve cornerstone E.P.A regulations, reduce staff within the agency, and then force additional changes at the state level, Hoffman adds. By the time a Trump administration was even partway down that long and bumpy road, a rousing a public response will likely have developed.
“In many ways, the checks and balances of our government are set up to slow down radical shifts,” Hoffman says. “That gives time for a counter-movement, which I think is already starting to gear up.”
Indeed, even before his election, Trump had started to back away from some of his more aggressive “abolish-the-E.P.A.” stump speeches, suggesting in September that he would simply “refocus” the agency’s priorities. “I believe firmly in conserving our wonderful natural resources and beautiful natural habitats,” Trump told a crowd gathered at the Shale Insight Conference in Pittsburgh — though he added: “My environmental agenda will be guided by true specialists in conservation, not those with radical political agendas.”
Those sorts of statements delighted oil and gas industry stakeholders for more than a year of campaigning, but Hoffman suggests that defenders of environmental regulation have been listening, too.
“In a funny sort of way, Trump has been signaling an outrageously radical position,” Hoffman says, “allowing those that can oppose it to form their position fairly quickly.”
This post has been updated to include comment from Bruce Lanphear of Simon Fraser University, and to make clear the division of party power in the U.S. Congress during the early Reagan years.