Can Donald Trump Dismantle the EPA? It’s Been Tried Before.

In Trump’s potential cabinet picks, echoes of a Reagan-era wave of environmental deregulation.


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.

Anne Gorsuch Burford was Ronald Reagan’s first EPA administrator. She was eager to dismantle the agency.

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.

President-elect Trump has, at times, vowed to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency — and he’s now assembling a team that just might try. Would it work?


“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. 

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2 comments / Join the Discussion

    Wake up President Trump followers. If you care about your future children’s lives; then accept what will happen w climate change-dirty water, dirty air like China, no rainforests and plants used to make vaccines, increase diseases-ZIKA being one. This is a fact.

    We Are All Ready Baked in to a 7C. Temp. Rise, even if we stopped emitting Carbon and Methane Right Now !

    Heating Up, and Burning Up, with Record Heat and Rain Year after Year

    “There is no carbon budget any more and 7C is baked in according to both ” Kevin Hester, an Guy McPherson

    With Record Breaking Wind, Hurricanes, Tornadoes, Earth Quakes, Rain, Snow and Heat !.

    That are HIGHER, Than Normal ! We are going to go Off the Charts !

    There is No Atmospheric Budget For More Carbon, Methane, or Nuclear !

    We must Stop Trump, Koch bros, Warren Buffets, Bill Gates, and their Fossil Fuel allies from FUKUSHIMIATIZING Us !

    Greenland is Melting and Calving Now, Jonas just went over Greenland at above Freezing Temps, for the first Time in the Dead of Winter 2016

    “And for the Winter of 2016 it’s possible that the Arctic may never experience typical conditions.

    For, according to NOAA, the first half of February saw this record, Spring-like, warmth extend on through today.

    It’s as if these coldest zones in the Northern Hemisphere haven’t yet experienced Winter

    — as if the freak storm that drove Arctic temperatures to record levels during late December has, ever since, jammed the thermometer into typical April levels and left it stuck there. ” Robert Scribbler

    Greenland has 20 Feet of Sea Level Rise !

    Now is the Time for Feed in Tariff Clean Kilowatts, Home Owners and Commercial Business owners selling Renewable Energy, Wind and Solar to the Utility !

    Dump Net Metering (Second Utility) Third Party Leasing.

    Protect Our Communities with Solar Policies that keep the Money in the Wallets and Purses of Head of House Holds.

    In Order to Ready Themselves for coming, Record Breaking Rain, Wind, Snow and Temps.

    Food Shortages, Heat,, Floods, Fire, Quakes, Volcanoes, Hurricanes. and Sea Level Rising 220 Feet !

    With Ca. Residential and Commercial Feed in Tariff

    Help Protect Hard Working, Tax Paying, Voting, Citizens from our Koch Bros, Warren Buffet, Warren Gates, Fossil Fueled Energy and Water Policies !

    Allow Home Owners to sell Their Renewable Energy to the Utility, aka Feed in Tariff.

    16 cents per kilowatt hour, 5to the grid for usage, 11 cents Home Owner !

    We Need To Decommission are Nuclear Reactors Now !

    And Relocate to above 3,000 Feet !

    Each 1C. Temp Rise, Atmospheric Moisture increases 7%

    We have increased Temp 1.7C. and Climbing

    1850 ppm Carbon 270

    1980 ppm carbon 350

    2015 ppm of Carbon 405 and Rising

    2016 ppm carbon 412 and rising !

    What will the ppm of Carbon be when Greenland All Melts ?

    Diablo Nuclear, San Onofre Fuel Rods, and All Nuclear needs to be relocated to 3000 feet above Sea Level

    Over 3 Million Years of Waxing and Waning From the Poles, with the Arctic Keeping North America Cool, Now it is Greenland Because of Fossil Fuels !

    Massive Sea Life Die Off on Pacific and Atlantic Coast !

    Pacific and Atlantic Oceans 4 – 18 degrees warmer than Normal

    Antarctica has 200 feet of Sea Level Rise

    Arctic Region Warming Twice as fast as the rest of the planet !

    Over 440 Nuclear Reactors at Sea Level Now !

    From Kevin Hester comes this message: Professor Guy McPherson will be touring New Zealand in November 2016 talking about Runaway Abrupt Climate Change. Regular updates are provided at KevinHester.Live and Facebook events will be created as the date draws near.

    Sign and Share for a Ca. Residential Feed in Tariff. Go to the youtube site, look six inches below video, click on Show More, then click on blue link to sign the petition.

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