Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.
How Andy Wheeler Learned to Troll California
This week, E&E reports that Andrew Wheeler began attacking the state of California long before he became the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President Trump. Before becoming a lobbyist for coal and uranium interests, Wheeler spent nearly 15 years working for or alongside Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe. You probably know Inhofe best as the guy who thinks bringing a snowball into the Capitol building somehow disproves climate change science. But Inhofe has been Washington, D.C.’s leading crusader against environmental regulation of all kinds for decades.
Accusing California of hypocrisy was a regular part of Inhofe’s anti-regulatory schtick in the 1990s and early 2000s, when Wheeler worked with him. The Golden State has long struggled to meet federal standards for ground-level ozone, and Inhofe thought it unseemly that California would simultaneously lobby for tighter environmental regulations while failing to meet those standards.
“I find it disturbing the EPA would assume that certain states will violate the law,” Inhofe said of the waivers that the EPA granted to California on air pollution standards. “But nothing seems to happen. It does in Oklahoma, and it does in Ohio, but not in California.”
Inhofe isn’t the first Oklahoman to critique California (see Joad, Tom), but some background is necessary to understand these accusations. It’s true that California has received waivers for its failure to meet federal smog standards. Those waivers aren’t a political favor, but rather an acknowledgement that geographical features unique to California make meeting ozone standards extremely challenging.
Southern California is essentially a smog trap. Mountains surround the region on three sides, creating a bowl that retains pollution. To make matters worse, warm air sits on top of the cooler ground-level air for most of the year, acting as a lid on the bowl and preventing pollution from dissipating upward. In addition, Southern California receives ample sunshine, which is a necessary catalyst to turn chemical pollutants from tailpipes into smog.
Although these air quality circumstances are well known to atmospheric scientists and environmental regulators, Inhofe never acknowledged them in his regular critiques of California’s air. And Wheeler was, according to some E&E sources, Inhofe’s able lieutenant in researching and sculpting the broadsides against California. There is no evidence that Wheeler held personal animus toward our most populous state, but he was Inhofe’s right-hand man in insulting, threatening, and attempting to punish California as the embodiment of the environmental consciousness that Inhofe so opposed. Now Wheeler works for Donald Trump, a man who has turned trolling California into a high art form.
But, like so much of Trump’s artwork, there is an absurdist element here. The best way to reduce California’s smog is to improve automotive fuel efficiency. If our president and EPA chief were truly concerned about air pollution, they would tighten fuel economy standards. Instead, they’re rolling back standards countrywide and trying to stop California from adopting its own limits. Trump and Wheeler’s campaign against California isn’t about improving the air and human health, it’s simply a move to punish their political opponents. Inhofe must be so proud.
Trump Loves Hermaphroditic Frogs
What should the government do when it discovers that the country’s groundwater contains a dangerous contaminant at levels above the limits set by the EPA, and that it has failed to suppress this contamination for more than a decade? If you answered, “Just raise the limit,” you are in line for a job in the Trump administration.
Studies have repeatedly found high levels of the pesticide atrazine in U.S. groundwater. Atrazine is a dangerous environmental contaminant, especially for amphibians. Male frogs exposed to even moderate levels of atrazine have reduced testosterone, reduced sperm counts, and even eggs inside their testes. In some cases the sex abnormalities are so profound that male frogs exhibit female mating behavior and attract other male frogs for mating. Studies have linked atrazine to hormonal and sexual abnormalities in fish as well. There are indications that if atrazine travels into drinking water, it poses a wide variety of health risks in people, from immune dysfunction to birth defects.
The European Union banned the pesticide in 2004, and as evidence of the dangers of atrazine mounted, the Obama administration moved to cut the allowable levels in groundwater from 10 to 3.4 parts per billion. Last week the Trump administration, in response to complaints from pesticide manufacturers, decided that we should allow more atrazine in our water, rather than less. The EPA has proposed increasing the limit to 15 parts per billion.
Wheeler Goes Full Costanza
Last week we covered the EPA’s plan to ignore decades’ worth of scientific research because the underlying data aren’t publicly available. The rationale for the decision is entirely pretextual. There is no reason to question the integrity of the data, and in the case of personal health information, both the law and ethical concerns prevent scientists from making their data completely public. The real reason for the proposal is to suppress all the research documenting the terrible health effects of air pollution and other environmental degradation.
Anyone who knows anything about scientific research is well aware of these basic facts, which is why the EPA is working so hard to prevent its own Science Advisory Board (SAB) from commenting on its nutty “secret science” plan. News emerged this week that Andrew Wheeler has repeatedly postponed SAB meetings, in which members would almost certainly have condemned the proposed rule as counterproductive and even dishonest.
Wheeler’s tactic—refusing to meet with people so they can’t deliver bad news—is what I call the “Costanza maneuver.” There’s an old Seinfeld episode in which George senses that his girlfriend is going to break up with him, so he refuses to see her. “If she can’t find me, she can’t break up with me,” he explains. Wheeler is clearly gambling that, if the SAB can’t find him, they can’t dump all over his bogus science rule.
“This has got no support,” a former staff director of the SAB told The Hill. “Every independent science organization that commented on it was strongly opposed to it. This is going to be a major storm when it breaks.”
The EPA claims the SAB meetings are being postponed until all empty positions have been filled, but that’s just more pretext; there’s no reason to ignore the advice of the existing members just because of a few empty seats. Will Wheeler’s stalling work? It didn’t work for George Costanza, and hopefully it won’t for Andrew Wheeler, either.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.