The EPA Under Siege

Read the full report.

The Trump administration currently poses the greatest threat to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in its entire 47-year history. Twice before, presidential administrations in North America have targeted their own environmental agencies with comparable aggression, in the early Reagan administration (1981-1983) and under Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper (2006-2015). Trump’s assault is on track to surpass these. Successful challenges to these earlier attacks provide pointers for those hoping to uphold the EPA’s mission of protecting human and environmental health today, Republicans and Democrats alike. Our analysis draws upon deep digs into historical literature and archives as well as sixty interviews with current and former EPA and some OSHA employees.

Key points:

  • In its early decades, the EPA enjoyed bipartisan support, growing under both Republican and Democratic presidents.
  • The greatest exception was the first Reagan administration (1981-1983).
  • Trump’s attack has mirrored Reagan’s in its reliance on appointing administrators with corporate ties who decry government “overreach”, including his first EPA Administrator Anne Gorsuch; an executive order undermining stringent environmental protections, by requiring cost-benefit analysis of new rules by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB); reorganization to break up the EPA Office of Enforcement; and proposals for deep budget and staff cuts.
  • Impacts: During Reagan’s first two years, Anne Gorsuch along with OMB director David Stockman succeeded in reducing the EPA budget by 21% and staff by 26%. Enforcement actions also dropped dramatically: civil cases referred from the regions to headquarters, for instance, fell by 79%.
  • The early-Reagan assault on the EPA ended after only two years, because of: revelations of conflict of interest, lying under oath, obstruction of justice, and more, via Congressional investigations and subpoenas, investigative reporting, and leaks; resistance from former and current employees, working through a “Save EPA” group and a new employee union, along with environmental and community groups; and political pressure from mounting public disapproval.
  • Reversal: By late 1983 Gorsuch and 21 other political appointees had resigned and the Reagan administration was seeking to restore the agency’s leadership, resources, and mission.
  • Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s administration (2006-2015) also anticipated Trump in targeting science as well as the environment. Harper did so in an era of solidifying consensus among scientists about human contributions to climate change, when the need to shift energy usage away from fossil fuels was becoming ever more apparent.
  • Harper’s attacks on environmental regulation came coupled with others on Canadian science and scientists: the Harper administration reversed Canada’s approach to climate change, and undermined environmental initiatives in general. It also significantly cut funding for federal laboratories and research programs, monitored and in some cases prohibited federal scientists from speaking publicly, deleted content from federal environmental websites, and closed federal environmental libraries.
  • Successful challenges to the Harper Administration took longer to materialize. From 2011, Canadian residents protested and formed organizations. Both science and the environment then emerged as key issues in the 2015 campaign season, which ushered in current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
  • The Trump administration’s overt challenges to the agency are compounding the effects of a quieter, longer-term erosion of support. The EPA has been shrinking in budget and staff size since the Clinton administration. Its peak staff size came in 1999, and its FY 2016 budget of $8.1 billion represents 9% fewer real dollars than the Agency received in 2006. Congressional Republicans have already been targeting the EPA’s Science Advisory Board.
  • In its first few months, the Trump administration has subjected the EPA to provocations and pressures surpassing those of Reagan’s early months:
  • Appointments like that of Scott Pruitt, who combines hostility to EPA “overreach” with greater experience than Gorsuch.
  • Speeches and publicity that ignore or contest the agency’s basic mission and that pledge overt allegiance to regulated industries.
  • Multiple executive orders asking the agency not just to favor fossil fuels but to rescind two existing rules for every new one (with assessments based only on compliance costs and not on calculated benefits); reevaluate the rest of agency rules for “burdensomeness”; and reorganize with a view to downsizing.
  • Proposals for steep budget and staff cuts beyond what even Anne Gorsuch first ventured, especially targeting climate, international collaborations, environmental justice, and enforcement programs; scientific research; and grants to states for implementation and enforcement.
  • Marginalization, monitoring, and suspicion of career employees. Morale has plummeted, and many describe a deep anxiety about their own careers and the future of environmental protection and the EPA.
  • Our historical analysis singles out key determinants of the EPA’s future:
  • Reviving a bipartisan coalition to support the agency in Congress offers the first, best hope for thwarting this administration’s destructive plans.
  • Since hearings in the Republican-led House and Senate are unlikely without demonstrated malfeasance or scandal, current and former EPA employees, Congressmen and their staffs, investigative journalists and media, environmental groups and other professionals and activists need to:
  • Keep a public spotlight on the environmental and science-related actions of the Trump administration and their consequences.
  • Better illuminate the long-standing importance and historically bipartisan support of this agency in protecting the health and wellbeing of people and the environment.
  • Environmental, climate, and community groups need to mobilize effectively to support the EPA’s environmental protections, science, and integrity, via media, protests, courtrooms, and the ballot box.

Author: Laura B.

I'm the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center's Sustainability Information Curator, which is a fancy way of saying embedded librarian. I'm also Executive Director of the Great Lakes Regional Pollution Prevention Roundtable. When not writing for Environmental News Bits, I'm an avid reader. Visit Laura's Reads to see what I'm currently reading.

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