Will Our Next EPA Administrator Be a Former Coal Lobbyist?

Credit: Andrew Soundarajan/iStock

President-elect Donald Trump’s list of contenders contains big polluter allies and apologists.

As early as this week, President-elect Donald Trump is expected to name a new administrator to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. We don't know who he'll tap, but we've seen nothing but worrisome signs so far that should be troubling to every American.

One of the most solemn duties Trump will soon take on as president will be to enforce the laws we all depend on to protect our environment and health. Few presidential responsibilities have a more direct impact on our daily lives or the quality of life our people deserve.

Clean water and air, food and lands untainted by dangerous chemicals, and a safe and stable climate are not luxuries in our society—they are part of the essential package of basic rights we all share.

These rights reflect bedrock American values: our common pursuit of equity and justice, government by the consent of the governed, and the implicit promise we make to leave our children a livable world.

By overwhelming bipartisan majorities, Congress has passed legislation to enshrine those values and protect those rights—the Clean Air Act, our toxic chemicals and waste cleanup laws, the Clean Water Act, and others—legislation that has been signed into law and enforced by presidents from both parties. It's the EPA’s job to faithfully apply those laws and advance their objectives.

For the agency to fulfill that mandate, we need the nation’s chief environmental steward to understand and respect that charge. They must have a clear grasp of the central environmental challenges of our time. And they must be ready to stand up to those who would endanger American lives and health.

We've yet to see any indication that the president-elect is considering such a nominee, based on some of the people involved or publicly mentioned so far as well as some of the more disturbing pledges and proposals he floated during the campaign.

As a candidate, Trump repeatedly assailed the EPA, falsely asserting that under President Obama, the agency's work throttled job creation. In fact, Obama has overseen the longest unbroken stretch of job growth in history. The private sector has added 15.6 million jobs over nearly seven years of uninterrupted growth. Unemployment, at 4.6 percent, is at its lowest in a decade.

The transition to cleaner energy has been a leading driver of that progress, employing some 2.4 million Americans. And yet, in a video address posted two weeks after the election, Trump said that on his first day in office, he'll “cancel job-killing restrictions on the production of American energy” and “formulate a rule which says that for every one new regulation, two old regulations must be eliminated.”

Certainly we need responsible public oversight to keep pace with a changing world. Every regulation, though, is grounded in law, science, a demonstrated need for action, and extensive public input in transparent proceedings in accordance with federal statutes. They aren’t made up out of thin air, and we can’t arbitrarily jettison them, two by two, to comport with some imagined authority to rule by fiat.

As a candidate, Trump pledged to shorten the reach of the EPA. The agency's budget already has been slashed 21 percent over the past six years by the Republican-controlled Congress, resulting in an 11 percent cut in staff. Adjusted for inflation, the budgetary cuts are even larger.

Trump railed out against federal regulations in general and vowed to eliminate the EPA’s Clean Water Rule, which provides needed protections to U.S. wetlands and streams, along with the Clean Power Plan, aimed at cleaning up the dirty power plants that account for 40 percent of the nation’s carbon footprint. He also pledged to scrap a pending rule that would protect streams that serve coal communities from toxic mining waste.

Running Trump’s EPA transition team is Myron Ebell, a career climate change denier from the hard-right Competitive Enterprise Institute, a group funded by fossil fuel companies and other big polluters. Ebell claims the threat of climate change is a “fantasy,” not a crisis that demands action.

He asserts that the Clean Power Plan and other vital measures we’re taking in this country to fight climate change “will have negligible effects” on the problem. That ignores, or course, the key role U.S. leadership played in helping to get more than 185 other countries to join forces in a global effort to fight the central environmental challenge of our time.

Ebell says needed actions “pose a grave threat to our economy,” overlooking the potential to create millions more clean energy jobs and the billions of dollars in annual energy savings from efficiency gains. Clean energy, in fact, has become cheaper than dirty energy.

Ebell even lashed out at Pope Francis for calling on the world to protect the millions of people living on the perilous front lines of climate catastrophe. He peddled the fossil fuel industry’s false line that only dirty power could help the world’s poor.

Ebell especially rues the clean air and fuel-efficiency standards—negotiated among car makers, the EPA and the U.S. Department of Transportation—that will double auto gas mileage and cut new cars’ carbon footprint in half by 2025. Consumers will “revolt,” he predicted in June 2015, and “auto sales will plummet.”

Car and light truck sales, by the way, just hit an all-time record—1.378 million—for the month of November. General Motors alone posted a 10 percent increase, year on year, aided by the new all-electric Chevy Bolt, named Motor Trend’s car-of-the-year. Consumers, it turns out, like having more choice in what they drive, especially when it means saving real money at the gas pump.

If this is the guy in charge of the EPA transition team, who might Trump name to lead the agency?

High on the list of reported contenders is a man who has devoted much of his career to trying to block the agency from doing its job: Scott Pruitt, the Republican attorney general of the oil and gas state of Oklahoma. Over the past five years, Pruitt has used his position as Oklahoma’s top prosecutor to sue the EPA in a series of attempts to deny Americans the benefits of reducing mercury, arsenic, and other toxins from the air we breathe; cutting smog that can cause asthma attacks; and protecting our wetlands and streams.

Pruitt sent the EPA a 2014 letter asserting that the agency was overestimating the air pollution from drilling for natural gas in Oklahoma. It turned out the letter was actually written by lawyers for one of the state’s largest oil and gas companies, Devon Energy, the New York Times reported. The story named Pruitt near the center of a “secretive alliance” among energy firms, other corporations, and state prosecutors coordinating legal strategy to target federal regulations. And he often boasts of leading other states in challenging the Clean Power Plan in court.

There’s never been any shortage of industrial polluters and their political allies that want to cripple the EPA. Why would we name someone intent on doing that to run the agency?

Another candidate under consideration is Kathleen Hartnett White, who works for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin-based group that has received funding from Koch Industries, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, the tobacco industry, and the like. White formerly headed the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. “Her exit is welcome news,” the Dallas Morning Newsconcluded when she left that post in 2007. “She has been an apologist for polluters, consistently siding with business interests instead of protecting public health.”

In a July article she penned for the conservative National Review, White assures us that “coal is quite clean.” She went on to dismiss the clean energy revolution as the stuff of “pipe dreams.” “The public has been led to believe that coal and other fossil fuels are dirty and that wind and solar are clean,” she wrote.

Well, yes, that is what decades of sound science tells us. And we have a right to expect that the nation’s top environmental cop understands that and doesn’t try to spin some flat earth theory into public policy making.

A third candidate is Jeff Holmstead, who left a record of weak and even illegal application of clean air laws as head of the EPA’s office of air and radiation under President George W. Bush.

On Holmstead’s watch, federal judges found the agency violated the Clean Air Act by failing to cut mercury, arsenic, lead, and scores of other hazardous pollutants from power plants that burn coal and oil.

When the Obama EPA issued long overdue standards in 2011 to address that pollution, the agency showed that the limits would avoid up to 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks, and 130,000 asthma attacks—every year. Holmstead, who was by then in the private sector representing coal and other industrial interests, derided the new rule as delivering “few real benefits.”

Currently at Bracewell, a Washington law and lobbying firm, Holmstead has sued EPA to block pollution limits on his clients—coal-burning power companies. Until recently, he was a registered lobbyist for those companies. Though Holmstead is not a climate change denier, he has sued to block the Clean Power Plan on behalf of his clients.

Do we want a coal company lawyer and lobbyist making EPA’s life-and-death decisions on how much pollution coal-fired power plants can make Americans breathe?

There are other names being floated as possible EPA heads, and we’ll have more to say when a nominee is named. For those who care about protecting our environment and health over the next four years and not undoing what’s taken two generations to put in place, there’s already ample justification for concern.

Nobody voted for dirty water and air.

If the president-elect tries to push a big polluter agenda that puts all that at risk, we’ll stand up to protect our rights and our values. We’ll stand up for our environment and health. We’ll stand up for our children’s future.

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