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EPA Under the Trump Administration: Down, Not Out

Tina Casey headshotWords by Tina Casey
Leadership & Transparency
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There doesn't seem to be much in the way of good news for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency these days. Killing off the EPA has been a favorite rallying cry for Republican office-seekers, and the election of Donald Trump provides a golden opportunity to put that idea into action. After all, during the primary season Trump promised voters that as president he would abolish the agency outright. It's true that the Trump administration could wreak havoc within EPA, short of driving it out of existence. However, the ideas driving that effort will face several key obstacles.

1. The EPA will go down swinging

Railing against the burden of EPA regulation on U.S. business has been the low-hanging fruit of Republican office-seekers for a generation. However, in an long form interview with Vox last week, Harvard law professor Jody Freeman makes the point that the Trump administration is going to have a tough time actually harvesting that fruit. That's partly because the EPA and other government agencies operate on a legal platform that can't be changed on a whim. If the Trump administration tries to skip steps and rush rule changes through, environmental organizations and other stakeholders can and will litigate on procedural rules. That legal process can drag on for years. Freeman argues that the courts, even conservative ones, are not friendly to rule-breakers. She provides several cautionary tales from the George W. Bush administration, including this one:
" … The Bush administration also came out and said they would reject the Clinton administration’s arsenic standard for drinking water, and that proved to be a political disaster for them — because, you know, the public doesn’t like to be poisoned. And that was also litigated, and [after eight years] the Bush administration ended up sticking to the Clinton standard."
A Republican-controlled Congress could try to legislate changes in the laws governing the EPA's mission, if they are willing to let Democrats capitalize on the negative publicity that follows. Based on the cabinet picks so far, negative publicity does not seem to have much of an effect on the Trump administration, let alone Trump himself. However, members of Congress are far more exposed. And they are already facing a growing fire as the Republican plans for Social Security and Medicare come to light. Keep in mind that President-elect Trump lost the popular vote by a number closing in on 3 million votes, and you can see why Republican legislators would want to choose their battles carefully. It's quite possible that the destruction of the EPA by legislative action could take a back seat, at least temporarily. On the other hand, Freeman describes a number of actions the Trump administration could take to stop or roll back EPA activity, without necessarily provoking court battles (do read the full article for details). These can be quite effective:
"There are a lot of ways to slow down implementation and to try to minimize enforcement. Everyone talks about the Reagan administration as a good example of the EPA being 'dismantled from within' — by slow-walking regulations, by slow-walking enforcement."
However, these options still involve a timeline and some degree of preparation, as well as pushback from Democrats and other stakeholders, including the agency's own staff. The bottom line is that the Trump administration will press for swift action against the EPA, but the result will be a slow, messy battle.

2. Veterans are going to bat for the environment

Outside of the courtroom battle, the Trump administration is facing a wave of environmental action that is riding on the success of two important fights. Those two wins -- the suspension of both the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline and the Dakota Access pipeline -- have primed the pump for future actions. In another less-publicized but significant victory, in May the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers refused to issue a permit for the proposed Pacific Gateway coal export terminal, citing tribal concerns and agreements. One key development is the participation of veterans in the Dakota protests. Thousands organized to join the protesters as a group under the banner of Veterans Stand for Standing Rock, an action that quickly caught the media eye. Wesley Clark Jr., whose father is former NATO commander Wesley Clark, is one of the veterans who organized Veterans Stand for Standing Rock. Clark said the group is already anticipating lending its support to other causes, possibly starting with the water crisis in Flint, Michigan:
"We don't know when we are going to be there but we will be heading to Flint," Clark Jr. told Jiquanda Johnson of Michigan media outlet MLive.com. "This problem is all over the county. It's got to be more than veterans. People have been treated wrong in this county for a long time."
At least one other veterans organization, the similarly named Veterans for Standing Rock, was also active in the Dakota protests. Veterans' support for environmental action is a new twist that attracts the media spotlight, and that could help build broad public interest in preserving the EPA's health and safety mission. The Trump administration may not feel inclined to listen, but legislators will likely hear plenty from their constituents.

3. U.S. business is already invested in clean power

The Clean Power Plan and the Paris climate agreement are two main targets for the incoming Trump administration. But U.S. companies have already begun pivoting to renewable energy, and that trend is not likely to slow significantly. In the Vox interview, Freeman listed several legal obstacles that will slow the Trump administration from rolling back the Clean Power Plan outright, or removing the U.S. from the Paris agreement. The interest of U.S. businesses in renewable energy will be another major stumbling block. The business sector is investing in renewable energy at a record setting pace, helped along by several organized efforts. One is the Rocky Mountain Institute, which offers a streamlined renewable energy toolkit through its Business Renewables Center. Another is the American Act on Business Climate Pledge, representing voluntary renewable energy commitments by dozens of leading companies. The EPA also provides support and publicity to leading clean energy buyers through its Green Power Partnership. That's going to be interesting, considering the growing connection between the Trump administration and Goldman Sachs. The investment firm is a solidly in the clean energy camp, and this year it was one of 16 Green Power Partners awarded for their role in reducing greenhouse gases.

4. U.S. states already love clean(er) power

The majority of U.S. states have begun to follow the global trend of decoupling economic growth from carbon emissions, as illustrated by a recent report from the Brookings Institution. According to the report, from 2000 to 2014, 33 states and the District of Columbia have seen their emissions drop by 12 percent as a group, while their economies grew by 22 percent. Our friends over at Green Tech Media provided a handy summary of the report. Brookings gives primary credit for the global carbon decoupling to the switch from natural gas to coal. And that creates an interesting dilemma for the Trump administration. To the extent that market forces are behind the switch to natural gas, Trump is going to have a tough time getting utilities in those states to return to coal. Meanwhile, the pipeline protests show that the public's tolerance for oil and gas infrastructure has reached a limit. Oklahoma, for example, recently ordered an emergency shutdown of disposal wells for oil and gas wastewater, which have been linked to hundreds of earthquakes. To sum up, Trump's threat to shut down the EPA is not just another empty campaign promise. However, his administration will be going up against some significant pushback, and his efforts may prove to be a Pyrrhic victory. Image: US EPA via storify.com. Save Save
Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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