The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has joined hungry elderly folks and low-income people with disabilities in the Trump administration’s proposed slash-and-burn budget strategy. This is particularly alarming if you enjoy breathing non-poisonous air, drinking clean water, preserving nature, avoiding toxic material in your waterways, and saving the planet from the doomsday clock of climate change. Founded in 1970 by President Nixon with bipartisan support, “the EPA has been instrumental in setting policy priorities and writing and enforcing a wide range of laws that have literally changed the face of the Earth for the better,” write the editors of a 2009 column, “Earth Talk” in Scientific American.
The Trump administration has recently announced it wants to cut the EPA’s annual budget by $2.1 billion, pare back its state grants by 30 percent, which includes clean air and water programs, and lay off as many as 3,000 employees. Even more alarming, its Office of Research and Development, the backbone of the EPA, could lose nearly half its budget. To add insult to injury, Trump appointed former Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt to head the agency, a man with strong ties to extractive industries like oil and coal that have the most to gain from environmental deregulation, and an ostensible climate-change denier. Pruitt recently told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” that despite reams of scientific data from leading agencies like NASA and NOAA affirming unequivocal evidence of global warming, and our human part in exacerbating it, he doesn’t believe carbon dioxide is a major contributor to climate change. And if junior congressman Matt Gaetz of Florida gets his way—though it is unlikely—his bill HB 861 would effectively end the EPA altogether on December 31, 2018.
Dan Riesel, a principal attorney at Manhattan’s Sive, Paget, and Riesel, which he calls “the oldest environmental law firm in the world,” has been litigating environmental issues for 47 years, since nearly the dawn of the environmental movement. Before the EPA’s establishment, “We had really fouled our nest. Very few states if any effectively regulated the environment.” For those who can’t remember life before the EPA, take a peek at these photos of life in the United States before, of smog-drenched skylines, factories and refineries belching smoke, and oil-befouled waters.
In 1969, Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act and in 1970 the Clean Air Act, which Riesel calls “The seminal act that [established] most of our national environmental statutes.” Ever since, the EPA has set standards for air and water “to standards adequate to protect human health and the environment” according to Riesel, and then it is up to the states, through state implementation plans, to figure out how to reach those standards.
Riesel recalls when New York’s Hudson River was one of the most polluted water bodies in the country. “Now you can drink from it,” he says. This is the sort of thing we can thank the EPA for. We can also thank the EPA for helping cities like Los Angeles and New York lose their reputations as smog capitals, for helping formerly endangered Bald Eagles rebound after banning the pesticide DDT, among many other instances.
Rebecca Lawton, an environmental writer, fluvial geologist and former Colorado River guide looked to EPA guidance when working in private consulting cleaning up groundwater that had been polluted mostly by gasoline products. “I learned how prevalent hydrocarbon plumes are in groundwater. Without EPA standards to clean the water, it wouldn’t get done and no one would know what standards to clean to,” she says. She is extremely concerned about the impact these changes will have not only on the environment but on human health, particularly these carcinogens in the water we’ll be drinking. “In my mind an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and if we’re going to be devoting billions of dollars to research on cancer, we should make sure we’re not just ignoring the causes.”
The Trump administration is not the first to attempt to pare back the EPA—Ronald Reagan also sought to dismember it in the 1980s, “Because it was meddling in what people thought states should have exclusive control over,” Riesel says. Predictably, cuts led to such situations as leaking hazardous waste dumps, and Congress then passed the Superfund program, which is responsible for responding to environmental emergencies, oil spills and natural disasters. Now, however, the EPA is much bigger, has more responsibilities and Trump is making a more concerted effort to cut back on scientific research to protect the corporate interests he appears dead set on representing over the American people.
Profit Over Protection
Lawton is infuriated by the attack on EPA funding, especially in the face of the climate science—researchers have discovered we are already past the 11th hour of necessary changes. This is what motivated 197 countries, including the U.S. under President Obama, to form the Paris Agreement, a pact to keep global temperature rise below the already dangerous level of 2 degrees Celsius. Trump, however, has said he’ll likely back out of the agreement. Lawton says, “The current administration is part of a dying breed. They’re trying to keep something going that is in decline and it’s got them alarmed.” So alarmed, she says, “they’re betting the entire globe on it. That’s frightening.”
Indeed, as Trump and Pruitt and others like him cling to the old ways to milk the last remaining profits out of their dying industries, Riesel believes they will be seeking to attack the Clean Power Plan for existing power plants, another Obama administration regulation requiring states to begin reducing carbon emissions from power plants by 2022. “The only way to do that is to get rid of some of your coal field plants and burn less fuel, less oil, and start relying on solar, wind, hydro, and other types of clean energy,” he says.
It seems unthinkable that anyone could put profits over the fate of the planet. “They still think the use of oil and gas is a viable future for us, or at least it’s going to continue to make them rich,” she says. “As if the people making these decisions aren’t wealthy enough.”
Naturally cutting back coal is a contentious issue for those in coal country—especially in those states whose support helped tip the election in Trump’s favor. While the coal industry fears the loss of jobs through obsolescence, Lawton points out that a lot of jobs depend on money coming from EPA grants. In the Sonoma Valley of California that she calls home, agencies, including ones she has worked with, have brought millions of dollars in community projects for habitat, stream and endangered species restoration, to name a few, through EPA funded grants. “This administration isn’t thinking of jobs extending to people who work in the environmental field, but there are a ton. It’s going to take jobs away all over the country,” she says. And where does all this money cut from the EPA go? “Whose pet pipeline is it going to build instead?” she wonders. Into an unnecessary border wall with Mexico and greater military defense spending.
Picking up the Slack
There is a modicum of hope, however. Congress is already pushing back against the program cuts, including some Republicans. And while Trump can cut the budget and the staff, gutting existing regulations is not such an easy thing to do. To set a regulation at the federal level requires a process that can take from months to years, including a public comment period and a revision process. “Trump can’t just wave a magic wand and do away with regulations that are fully enacted,” Riesel says. “You’ve got to go to court, file a new regulation, go through the same process.”
It will be up to states to pick up the slack, though this will raise costs on taxpayers, an unpopular choice for many state governors. Riesel envisions states like New York, California and Massachusetts leading the way. He also has faith that most major industry, extractive industries excepted, will not suddenly abandon their existing plans for carbon reduction. And of course, we civilians should take it upon ourselves now, more than ever, to practice lightening our carbon footprint upon the planet, as well.
Meanwhile, the environmental organizations are becoming nothing short of weaponized to fight these fights. The National Resource Defense Council acquired 60,000 new members since the election alone, he says. “There will be fights. Environmentalists now realize they have to be as active as civil rights organizations.”
If nothing else, we can only hope that voters are paying close attention by 2018. “From my perspective it’s an abandonment of good government to look away, and has the potential for disaster,” Riesel concludes.