Week 47: The EPA Isn’t That Into Enforcing Environmental Laws

Plus, NASA is ordered off climate research while Trump (maybe) acknowledges climate change.

December 15, 2017

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

President Trump, accompanied by (from left) Vice President Pence, EPA chief Scott Pruitt, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, at EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C., prior to signing an “energy independence” executive order, March 2017

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo

The Failing EPA

In its first nine months, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under Donald Trump has brought one-third fewer environmental enforcements than Obama’s EPA during the same period, and one-quarter fewer enforcement actions than George W. Bush’s EPA, according to an analysis released this week by the New York Times. The agency has also imposed fewer civil penalties on polluters.

The report isn’t the first of its kind. In August, the Center for Environmental Integrity reported that EPA civil penalties had dropped 60 percent in Trump’s first six months, compared with the first six months of presidents Obama, George W. Bush, and Clinton.

In a statement responding to the Times report, the agency said, “We focus more on bringing people back into compliance than bean counting.” But that’s demonstrably false—they’re not bringing people back into compliance.

First, the newspaper’s analysis itself shows that, under Scott Pruitt, the EPA has been far less successful in forcing companies to install pollution-limiting devices, such as scrubbers. Whatever the agency is doing to foster compliance, it clearly isn’t working.

More damningly, the Times uncovered documents that seem to show a concerted effort on the part of EPA management to make it harder, or impossible, for staff to enforce the law. Regional offices may no longer order water or air-quality tests without first getting permission from EPA headquarters. EPA enforcement officers have also been ordered off active cases.

Pruitt and his top advisors no longer consult EPA’s career officials, employees with far more substantive knowledge about environmental science and federal regulation than Pruitt, whose only relevant experience before taking control of the agency was suing it from his position as attorney general for the state of Oklahoma.

Here’s the most troubling part of the EPA’s enforcement slowdown: There’s very little anyone can do about it until either Trump or Pruitt is gone. There are safeguards against changing the law: Before Pruitt can repeal regulations, he must go through a very public process and submit himself to court review. But for most statutes, there’s simply no legal mechanism by which private parties can challenge the EPA’s refusal to enforce. The only option is for private groups or individuals to sue the polluters themselves, one case at a time. That process is costly and time-consuming—and why Congress created the EPA in the first place.

Stop Trump and Pruitt’s escalated anti-environment assault

Mooning NASA

Donald Trump wants to go to the moon, which, in and of itself, sounds like a great idea. I’d gladly pay for his one-way ticket. But there’s a catch: In ordering NASA to focus its funding on a new moon landing, Trump has slyly diverted funds from climate change research.

President Trump’s effort to send astronauts back to the moon and eventually to Mars is not a problem. But the fact that it will jeopardize four missions that study changes to the earth’s atmosphere is. For example, among its many other scientific duties, the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, Ocean Ecosystem satellite, or PACE, monitors the movement of carbon dioxide between the ocean and the atmosphere. It also monitors aerosols, or tiny airborne particles, that affect the planet’s temperature.

The announcement is not a surprise. Last month, Trump advisor Bob Walker called NASA’s climate change research “politically correct environmental monitoring” and urged an end to such missions.

I have no idea what makes environmental monitoring “politically correct,” nor can I imagine what “politically incorrect” environmental monitoring would be like. (If anyone can do it, though, Trump can.) I do think, however, that it makes sense to put the agency with the best knowledge of satellite technology in charge of remote sensing missions that require the use of satellites. Moreover, as Neil deGrasse Tyson likes to point out, much of our understanding of climate change derives from our study of Venus. Climate change research requires core competencies that only NASA has. To exclude the agency from this research would strongly suggest an attempt to kill it.

Trump Believes in Climate Change Now?

This one seems like a bit of a head-scratcher at first. President Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act on Tuesday. Tucked into the bill was language about climate change, calling it “a direct threat to the national security of the United States.”

Top military brass are concerned about climate change’s ability to upend global stability―if, for example, rising seas swamp military bases or warming temperatures cause food shortages and mass migrations. That’s why Congress craftily included a series of quotes from Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joseph Dunford, former secretary of defense Robert Gates, and others emphasizing how worried the Pentagon is about climate change. The bill also noted that climate change will create breeding grounds for terrorist organizations.

It’s intriguing that Donald Trump chose not to use his influence to remove those passages from the bill. He didn’t even issue a signing statement objecting to the climate change text, an easy maneuver that could have satisfied his climate-denying base. Is it possible the serious people in the cabinet and in the military are starting to get the message into Trump’s head?

Pruitt Is Keeping the Inspector General Busy

You thought the story about Scott Pruitt’s $25,000 soundproof booth had run its course? Not by a long shot. This week, the Washington Post reported that the EPA’s inspector general will investigate how and why Pruitt authorized a significant financial outlay on a gigantic phone booth.

Democratic Representative Frank Pallone, Jr., requested the investigation as part of an examination of waste, fraud, and abuse at the EPA. (The soundproof booth seems like at least one of those three, possibly more.) Tellingly, the inspector general told Pallone that the investigation would take a while because “we have numerous other pending matters.” Like investigating Pruitt’s ludicrous travel expenses?

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.

Policy Primer

Let’s not forget what America looked like before we had the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Our rivers caught on fire, our air was full of smog, and it stank (literally).

onEarth Story

The White House wants to nix grants that help local governments protect their citizens from pollution.

What's At Stake

The regulations that protect Americans’ health, economy, and environment now need our protection.

onEarth Story

A researcher explains the psychological foundation of climate skepticism—and offers a strategy for chipping away at it.

onEarth Story

By leaving the Paris Agreement, the president also withdrew the country from the world community. Does he understand what this means? Does he even care?

onEarth Story

Muzzling scientists, scrubbing websites, attacking journalists: all in a shameful day’s work for our bought-and-paid-for EPA administrator. It’s time to stop him.

onEarth Story

The EPA chief’s new $25,000 soundproof booth, Ryan Zinke hates solar panels, and the Arctic refuge is in danger yet again.

onEarth Story

Where Trump has failed Americans, local governments and businesses are rising to the occasion.

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.