EPA Resists Squeeze, But for How Long?

January 22, 2020

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, although still standing after threats it would be dismantled, faces cuts in staffing, a drop in enforcement and and undermined science advisory roles. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Click to enlarge.

Backgrounder: EPA Resists Squeeze, But for How Long?

By Joseph A. Davis

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is one in a series of special reports from SEJournal that looks ahead to key issues in the coming year. Visit the full “2020 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” special report for more.

When Donald Trump was a presidential candidate he made a campaign promise — to destroy the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“Department of Environmental Protection. We are going to get rid of it in almost every form,” Trump boasted (may require subscription) at a televised primary debate in Detroit on March 3, 2016. “We’re going to have little tidbits left but we’re going to take a tremendous amount out.”

But if President Trump had not yet succeeded as 2020 began, it was not for want of trying. 

And the story of his administration’s efforts was pretty much the narrative on the environmental beat during his presidency: EPA is still alive today, but what kind of future does it face?


Former EPA-ers read the tea leaves

The answers to EPA’s future will be found in scores of courtrooms across the United States in 2020, in often-packed meeting rooms and crowded sidewalk protests, in dozens of Congressional committee and floor votes, and, yes, in polling booths on Nov. 3.

Expert observers like David Uhlmann, a former top EPA official, believes the damage already done by the Trump administration to EPA has been “really bad.” 


“The gutting of the EPA has profound 

public health and ecological impacts.” 

  — Judith Enck, former 

EPA regional administrator


Former Regional Administrator Judith Enck argues that “the gutting of the EPA has profound public health and ecological impacts.” And Kerrigan Clough, another former EPA official, notes that many EPA employees with know-how and institutional memory had grown demoralized and retired.

But Uhlmann and Enck, who spoke along with Clough at a “Future of EPA” session at the Society of Environmental Journalists’ annual conference in Colorado last October (audio here), held out some hope. 

Enck suggested that rebuilding a gutted agency would eventually be possible. And Uhlmann, too, thought the destruction could be reversed in future years under a different administration.

“It’s all about 2020,” Uhlmann said.


Assessing the damage

One way to measure the damage to the agency is by simply counting the attempted regulatory rollbacks. 

The climate and environment desk team at the New York Times has been trying to keep a tally — it currently counts 95 (may require subscription) rollbacks.

But how you assess “rollbacks” depends a lot on when you consider them complete. The Times’ team, for instance, takes pains to note that many of them have not yet taken effect because of lengthy rulemaking procedures or stiff court challenges. 

The news organization currently rates 58 of the 95 “complete,” but court challenges can’t even start until a rule is administratively “final.”

By another count, Trump regulatory rollbacks have been legally unsuccessful. A study of deregulation (beyond just the environmental realm) by the nonpartisan Institute for Policy Integrity found about 90 percent of the overall rollbacks were being blocked in court.

Uhlmann also pointed out that many of the court cases over EPA rules would still be going on after the 2020 election. If a Democrat won, she or he could abandon defense of the rollbacks in court. 

But with four more years of Trump, Uhlmann said, “Forget about it.”


Not EPA’s first time as target

It’s worth remembering that EPA has faced hostile political times before

When EPA Administrator Anne Gorsuch Burford came in at the beginning of the Reagan administration in 1981, the agency also took on a pro-industry, anti-regulatory tilt. 

But that administration faced a phalanx of committee investigations from a Democrat-controlled Congress. Burford ended up resigning amid scandal and the EPA went back in the direction of environmental protection.


Old EPA hands seemed to agree that 

the Trump administration’s assault on 

environmental protection was much worse 

than those in previous administrations.


Likewise, during the administration of George W. Bush, industry forces gained more ascendancy in EPA matters. But pragmatic and relatively moderate administrators like Christine Todd Whitman and Stephen Johnson steered the agency on a middle path.

The old EPA hands at SEJ’s conference seemed to agree that the Trump administration’s assault on environmental protection was much worse than those in previous administrations. Even past Republican administrators have warned of the Trump EPA’s radical efforts to deregulate.

Despite the damage, there are important forces pushing back against Trump efforts to dismantle EPA — not just environmental groups and some states, but also members of Congress, especially from the Democrat-held House.


On funding, local politics carries sway

EPA’s budget is a battleground and indicator that tells much about the agency’s future.

The first full budget proposal Trump sent to Congress in early 2017 (for fiscal 2018) proposed a drastic 31 percent cut to EPA’s total budget. Congress, even though it was then held by Republicans, pretty much ignored most of the requested cuts. 

In subsequent years, the Trump administration has continued to propose cutting EPA’s budget by roughly the same 31 percent — and Congress has continued to ignore the requested cuts, funding the agency at steady levels or even to increase funding. 

The final appropriation bill for 2020 gave EPA a raise (subscription required).

What happened? The bash-EPA ideologues in the administration seemed to fail to appreciate that a big share of EPA’s budget actually went out to states and localities (and Congressional districts) in the form of grants and loans to do things like build sewage plants, purify drinking water and clean up hazardous waste sites. 

If you look at the history of EPA’s budget over the years, it does not decline much. If the historic trendline continues, EPA’s funding future may not be bleak.   


EPA workforce, enforcement down

This sanguine outlook, however, does not hold for EPA’s workforce. 

EPA staffing levels are definitely down since Trump took office — and that’s just what Trump was trying to achieve … except he wanted even more downsizing. 

Last year, the workforce was down to 14,172 from a historic high of 17,359 in fiscal 2011. Much of the reduction actually came during the Obama years because of a hostile Republican Congress. 

But the numbers can be deceptive for a number of reasons. Administration officials can (and do) choose to leave positions empty as people retire or leave the agency, even if the positions are funded. 


Anti-pollution laws do little 

unless they are enforced, and 

enforcement has definitely 

been down at EPA under Trump.


But many employees with the most experience are leaving, and this bodes poorly for the future of EPA. 

Another way of looking at EPA’s future is enforcement. 

Anti-pollution laws do little unless they are enforced, and enforcement has definitely been down at EPA under Trump. 

EPA’s own data showed in February 2019 that inspections of industrial facilities were down by almost half, a 10-year low. 

To be fair, however, that decline had begun under Obama. But by November 2019, it was clear that criminal prosecution and convictions of polluters had fallen to a quarter-century low

Policy may be part of the reason, but the numbers are also a result of a depleted enforcement workforce. Even with a new administration, that will take years to rebuild.  


Science, advisory boards undercut

For the Trump administration, the science that justifies regulation of pollution seems to have been an annoying inconvenience. 

One of the earliest examples was then-Administrator Scott Pruitt’s decision back in March 2017 to overrule agency scientists (may require subscription) and allow the use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos, linked to brain damage in kids. It was not lost on many observers that chlorpyrifos is made by Dow, which had written a $1 million check for Trump’s inauguration. 

Another science denial arose from climate change, which Trump had labelled a Chinese “hoax” despite scientific consensus.


Trump’s EPA administrators attacked science 

with a lengthy campaign to defang the agency’s 

science advisory boards — replacing independent 

scientists with industry-friendly ringers.


Trump’s EPA administrators Pruitt and his successor Andrew Wheeler attacked science with a lengthy campaign to defang (may require subscription) the agency’s science advisory boards — replacing independent scientists with industry-friendly ringers. 

But even those defanged advisory boards couldn’t stomach the ways science had been abused and ignored at the agency, as they made clear in a set of draft letters Dec. 31 (may require subscription).

Restoring good science as a basis for protecting health and effective regulation may prove more than a matter of changing administrations and flipping a switch. Eventually advisory committees and research programs could be rebuilt. Less clear, however, is how long it might take to restore the scientific credibility that has been lost or damaged.  


Court contests continue

One sure bet for 2020 is that litigation will continue. As always. Despite the decisive-sounding bluster of incoming administrations, it is often the courts who have the last say. 

Some litigation happens as a matter of administrative law during rulemakings. More may come about as contested regulations (or deregulations) are tested in successive levels of courts.  

All this takes time — years, really. Some of the pre-Trump efforts to undo Obama rules are still in the courts.

For example, the Trump effort to undo the Obama auto emissions standards will not conceivably be resolved by the courts before the end of Trump’s current term. Even without Trump, conflicts among states and auto companies would keep it going. 

Likewise, legal arguments over what waters of the United States are covered by pollution controls in the Clean Water Act are likely to continue well past the end of Trump’s reign — as they simmered for decades before he arrived. 

But the resolution to the so-called WOTUS issue, when and if it comes, will have much to do with EPA’s future ability to control water pollution.    

For EPA, voting counts, but which races?

The future of EPA won’t be on the ballot. Or maybe actually it will. But it will require some thought to figure it out. 

The choice of a president is important, but not all-important. Despite his penchant for photo-op executive orders, Trump has so far achieved less than he set out to. 

The choices among non-presidential candidates will also have big consequences, and bear watching by journalists.

In fact, it may be that races in the House and Senate, and even the state legislatures, will have a big impact if they can help end the divided, deadlocked government that breeds the current conflict over the EPA in the first place. 

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet and Reporter's Toolbox columns. Davis also directs SEJ's WatchDog Project and writes WatchDog Tipsheet, and compiles SEJ's daily news headlines, EJToday.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 3. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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