Week 23: Trump’s EPA Chief Doesn’t Understand Where River Water Comes From

The EPA plans to rescind the Clean Water Rule, and the Senate gives Scott Pruitt a tongue-lashing.

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

Olivier Tabary/Shutterstock

As Clear as a Prairie Pothole

When reporters ask Donald Trump about climate change, he usually mumbles something incoherent then changes the subject by touting, say “crystal clear water.”

But such water is also not among his priorities. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under Trump made official its plans to revoke the Clean Water Rule, the Obama-era regulation that clarified which bodies of water receive protection under the Clean Water Act―including, for instance, smaller streams that fed into rivers.

There are two things to note about the absurdity of this decision. First, the agency proposes rescinding the current rule without replacing it. That move would plunge water protection back into the confusion that the Clean Water Rule intended to remedy by making clear (crystal clear, even) the categories of water protected by the law. What happened to the demands for “regulatory certainty”?

Second, the critique of the Clean Water Rule is a muddy stew of hyperbole and outright lies. For example, when the president ordered the EPA to rescind the rule in February, he claimed it placed “nearly every puddle” under federal control. In fact, the rule explicitly excludes puddles from its definition of “waters of the United States.”

On Wednesday, Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming said the rule “would have put backyard ponds, puddles, and prairie potholes under Washington’s control.” See what he did there? Most people have no idea what a prairie pothole is, but by combining it with something you do understand (the false claim about puddles), Barrasso hopes you’ll assume it’s an outrage. But here’s the thing—prairie potholes are significant geological features with very little relationship to puddles. They are depressions created by retreating glaciers that fill with meltwater and serve as important habitat for birds. They also absorb excess water, prevent flooding, and supply local drinking water wells. In addition, under the Clean Water Rule, the federal government can regulate prairie potholes only if they have an impact on more significant downstream bodies of water, like navigable rivers. The rationale is clear: It’s impossible to keep a river clean if the waters that flow into it are toxic waste dumps. Barrasso certainly knows that, but he hopes you don’t.

Before it can rescind the Clean Water Rule, the administration must provide a rational basis for the move and respond to public comment. Your chance to tell Trump why he’s wrong is coming in the weeks ahead. Take it.

Hollow and Offensive

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt trudged to Capitol Hill for the second time in two weeks on Tuesday. The most notable thing about these hearings is how little Pruitt speaks. He mostly just sits quietly while members of Congress explain to him why the administration’s budget for his agency is irredeemably, inexcusably, off-the-charts crazy. This week, the senators took turns trying to one-up each other on insult magnitude. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska began conservatively, pointing out that the budget is “in direct contrast” to the stated goal of focusing on the EPA’s core responsibilities, like, ya know, protecting the environment and public health.

Aaron Bernstein/Reuters

Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont went a step further, calling the budget “really the worst I’ve seen.” (Leahy, by the way, has seen almost every EPA budget in his 42 years in the Senate.) Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico went all in, noting that the EPA would be “hollowed out” under the budget and calling the proposal “downright offensive.”

If Pruitt has a defense, he didn’t offer it to the senators. He just took his scolding. His only retort of note was that the purge of scientists on EPA advisory boards over the past few months wasn’t technically a firing, because “those individuals can reapply for spots.”

Pruitt must be a great boss. He doesn’t fire people; he just invites them to reapply for their jobs.

Then what did they talk about?

Newly released records show that shortly before reversing the EPA’s plan to ban the controversial pesticide chlorpyrifos, Pruitt met with the CEO of Dow Chemical, the company that developed it.

When asked about the 30-minute meeting, an EPA spokeswoman acknowledged that Pruitt and Dow CEO Andrew Liveris had been “briefly introduced” at an energy industry conference (exactly the place you would go if hoping to run into Scott Pruitt). The spokeswoman denied that the two discussed chlorpyrifos, but that doesn’t rule out the possibility that they discussed schmorpyrifos, or perhaps “a neurotoxic pesticide that shall remain nameless.” In any event, Trump administration officials have a history of conveniently forgetting the content of their conversations (*cough* Flynn *cough* *cough* Sessions).

It would be surprising indeed if Liveris had not taken the opportunity to discuss chlorpyrifos with Pruitt, considering that Dow has clearly been working to influence the administration on the pesticide. The company donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration, and Liveris served as head of one of Trump’s business advisory councils. In April, Dow sent a letter to the administration asking the EPA to set aside the agency’s negative findings on the safety of chlorpyrifos. In May, the EPA did as Liveris asked.

Does Pruitt really expect us to believe that, at the height of the fight over the future of its $100 million pesticide, the CEO of Dow spent a half hour talking to him about baseball?

Energy Weak

Trump gave a speech as part of his little-noticed “Energy Week” on Thursday. As usual, he told a series of half-truths. Of himself and Pruitt on climate change, Trump claimed that “the world is starting to say, ‘I think they’re right.’” (In fact, the G7 has begun to issue declarations without the United States’ assent.) He also claimed his approval of the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines would create “thousands of jobs.” (In fact, the total permanent jobs from the two pipelines would be in the dozens.) Trump also said his approval of those pipelines generated no protests. (Thousands took to the streets in Los Angeles, among other places.) Trump promised that, after being mined for coal, federal land would be left “in better shape than it is right now.” (In fact, restoring mined land to its original state is expensive and time consuming, and mining companies often run out of cash before finishing the job.)

But the most absurd statement of all was Trump’s oft-repeated claim that Obama-era regulations “raised the price of energy so quickly.” This is indisputably false. The price of natural gas dropped 82 percent between 2008 and 2016. The price of oil dropped 59 percent over the same period. Taking inflation into account, the average price of electricity stayed nearly constant during the Obama years. At the same time, under Obama’s leadership environmental protections improved, demonstrating that we needn’t choose between affordable energy and a healthy environment. That narrative, however, isn’t convenient to the Trump agenda, so he just makes stuff up.

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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