Week 2: Trump Doesn’t Play by the Rules—or Seem to Understand Them

The president continued attacking environmental laws, and Senate Republicans suspended committee rules to advance his climate-denying EPA pick.

Seats on the Democrat's side of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing room during a boycott to thwart the confirmation vote on EPA administrator nominee Scott Pruitt, February 1, 2017

AP/REX/Shutterstock

Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.

No Vote for You

Senate Democrats stalled Scott Pruitt’s nomination to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday by boycotting the committee vote.

Republicans called the boycott a “stunt,” the word politicians use to distract the media from legitimate questions about their agenda. Civil rights opponents called virtually every protest of the 1960s a stunt. Republicans called last year’s congressional sit-in to protest inaction on gun control a stunt. They even called a 2014 bill requiring equal pay for equal work a stunt.

The Democratic boycott isn’t a stunt—it’s a legislative tactic to bring attention to Pruitt’s failure to answer important questions about information he’s refusing to disclose. For example, why won’t Pruitt reveal the full extent of his connections to the oil and gas industry? What’s more, shouldn’t the man tapped to lead the EPA support at least one environmental regulation? Shouldn’t he know at what level lead is safe? (Answer: at no level.)

In response to the non-stunt, Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee suspended committee rules (which raises questions about the meaning of the word rules) instead of simply asking their nominee to answer the legitimate questions that were posed to him in his confirmation hearing.

If Republicans are really against stonewalling, they should have told Scott Pruitt to stop doing it.

One In, Two Out

President Trump has ordered agencies to cut two regulations for every new regulation they adopt. The order treats regulations as fungible, a concept that makes sense only to a person who hasn’t bothered learning what regulations do. It also ignores the fact that many regulations provide a net financial benefit. The Obama administration rule limiting mercury emissions from power plants, for example, provides nearly $4 in health benefits for every $1 that utilities spend on compliance.

Of course, doing that kind of analysis requires scientists and complicated statistics. “Pass one, cut two” can be done on your fingers—I guess that’s the kind of math Trump likes.

Penny Wise . . .

Here’s an example of how Trump’s antiregulatory crusade will work. The administration forced the EPA to rescind its mercury effluent rule, aimed at reducing the concentration of the neurotoxin in our waterways. The regulation would have protected fetuses and infants, whose developing brains are especially vulnerable to mercury exposure. The downside of the rule? Some dentists would have to spend $800 to manage the disposal of mercury from fillings—a cost that could be passed on to patients in the form of around 31 additional cents per dental visit. The American Dental Association even supports the rule, and this week NRDC sued the EPA over it.

Lochsa River, Idaho

Keith Ewing/Flickr

To put this issue into additional perspective, Trump has threatened to convene a vaccine-safety commission to investigate the already thoroughly debunked claim that negligible amounts of mercury within a long since discarded vaccine preservative caused a spike in autism incidence. Whether that commission will actually form is yet to be seen, but even so, Trump can’t spare 31 cents to keep mercury out of our water?

Building His Bench

Trump nominated Judge Neil Gorsuch this week to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the U.S. Supreme Court. If confirmed, he’ll face a slew of environmental cases, including the pending challenge to President Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

Olivier Douliery/Abaca

Law nerd alert! Gorsuch is a strident critic of Chevron deference, the idea that courts should defer to administrative agencies when interpreting statutes. The Chevron principle doesn’t always favor environmental protections but can be an important tool for agencies committed to the health of the planet. That’s because environmental laws often provide plenty of room for the EPA to develop rules that aggressively fight pollution. Overturning Chevron would run the risk of throwing environmental and other public safeguards to the courts, which are ill-equipped to handle time-intensive, complex, and technical reviews of each challenged rule.

It’s Plenty Transparent—You Just Don’t Understand It

U.S. Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, wants to make EPA science more “transparent.” As an example of the problem, Smith cites the Obama administration’s calculation of the social cost of carbon, which Smith claims was produced “with little transparency or accessibility by the American public.”

Smith’s claim is utterly disingenuous. In fact, the administration has produced reams of documents explaining how it computed the social cost of carbon, including references to the independent scientific research undergirding the calculation. Perhaps Smith doesn’t like reading technical documents, but I hardly think the EPA is required to make a rhyming picture book to make its work transparent. You don’t have to convene a special committee—just ask a scientist.

Steve Bannon, Climate Change Researcher?

In an unprecedented move this week, Trump added all-around bad guy Steve Bannon to the National Security Council. Having a political advisor present during national security discussions is troubling enough, but if you think the former navy man agrees with the Pentagon in considering climate change a national security threat, you’re wrong. But also a little bit right.

Biosphere 2

Lenore Edman/Flickr

Bannon has a long, strange history with the topic of climate change. In the 1990s, he took over management of the self-contained experimental community known as Biosphere 2 and pitched the domed city as a unique opportunity for climate change researchers.

“A lot of the scientists who are studying global change and studying the effects of greenhouse gases, many of them feel that the earth’s atmosphere in 100 years is what Biosphere 2’s atmosphere is today,” said a man who looked amazingly like Steve Bannon.

Scientists accepted Bannon’s invitation and used Biosphere 2 as a climate change research station, but apparently Bannon didn’t cotton to their results. Today, Bannon calls climate change believers “greentards” who are “totally fu**ing wrong.” As we know, 97 percent of actual climate scientists disagree.

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch or following it on Facebook or Twitter.


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.

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