Three Former Republican EPA Administrators Are Sounding the Alarm

These environmental protectors of the Reagan and Bush eras have some things to say about the state of Trump’s EPA.
From left: Former EPA administrators Gina McCarthy, Christine Todd Whitman, William Reilly, and Lee Thomas swearing in during a House Energy and Commerce hearing, June 11, 2019

Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call via Associated Press

Long before all this (gestures broadly), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency aimed to actually protect the environment and public health. But the Trump administration’s ethos of rollbacks and industry favors has turned the agency on its head. Former EPA administrators—three of whom served during Republican administrations, mind you—recently convened to remind us that the new normal isn’t normal at all.

Lee M. Thomas, William K. Reilly, and Christine Todd Whitman—who served under Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush, respectively—made a rare joint appearance at a recent House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing to raise a giant red flag. Gina McCarthy, the EPA administrator under President Obama, also attended. Here’s the state of the agency, in its former leaders’ own words. 

Whitman spoke about the role of ideology and science in guiding policy decisions. (Hint: We should try to avoid the former and keep the latter intact.)

“We are here because we are deeply concerned that decades of environmental progress are at risk of being lost because of two misguided beliefs. First, that environmental policy over the years has been driven by ideology instead of by science. Second, that environmental protection and economic prosperity are mutually exclusive goals. In fact, the exact opposite is true in both cases. It is the current administration that is using ideology to drive environmental policy instead of letting science drive policy.”

She continued on the legacy of bipartisan support for environmental protections. The Trump administration, by comparison, refuses to even cooperate on what were formerly uncontroversial measures, like efficiency standards.

“Next year will mark 50 years since the enactment of the nation’s first major environmental law, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the establishment, by President Nixon, of the Environmental Protection Agency. It is worth noting that NEPA, and virtually all of the nation’s subsequent significant environmental laws, were enacted with strong bipartisan support. I make this point because it is important to note that for much of the last half century—and certainly in the early decades of the nation’s modern commitment to protecting the environment and public health—this important mission enjoyed broad bipartisan consensus.”

Thomas, who helped negotiate the historic (and wildly successful) Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer, discussed the current administration failing to carry out its responsibilities.

"Does the agency have adequate resources with the strong scientific capability it needs? Is it seeking input form key scientific advisory committees? Is it coordinating actively with the broad scientific community on research surrounding environmental issues? I don't think they do.”

Reilly spoke about the importance of scientific expertise to guide policy decisions. It appears Reilly may have been prescient: Just days after his testimony, President Trump issued an executive order slashing the number of scientific advisory committees by an abysmal one-third.

“EPA needs to re­establish the agency’s scientific credibility by appointing well-qualified scientists from key disciplines to advisory committees and to consider the full range of peer-reviewed research and databases that are relevant to questions at hand.”

Reilly also discussed the credibility of scientific modeling—of particular concern after reports warned that the Trump administration may be tweaking its modeling of air pollution’s impacts on health to falsely support its rollback of the Clean Power Plan.

“Also important are cost-­benefit analyses that fairly and credibly tally the best available estimates as a tool to aid decision making. To take one example, such analyses underscore that the benefits of clean air far outweigh the costs.”

McCarthy, whose own Obama-era environmental protections have faced relentless attacks by the Trump administration, talked about coming together across party lines to do right by future generations. (Novel idea, huh?)

“The ability and willingness of EPA to do its job matters to me, as does the ability of the U.S. to once again actively participate in the Paris Agreement and lead a worldwide effort to get to zero carbon emissions in the timeline science demands. And it should matter to each and every one of you regardless of your party affiliation. Why? Because we all love our families. We want to protect them and keep them healthy and safe—now and in the future. And we all have a moral responsibility to our children to protect them from pollution today while we act on climate to protect their future.”

What they said.

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