Obama EPA lawyer on Trump, Spotify and his Patagonia gig

By Jeremy P. Jacobs | 03/08/2019 01:11 PM EST

VENTURA, Calif. — For Avi Garbow, President Obama’s top lawyer at EPA, a chance to work at outdoor gear maker Patagonia was too good to pass up.

Avi Garbow is Patagonia's new environmental advocate.

Avi Garbow is Patagonia's new environmental advocate. Jeremy P. Jacobs/E&E News

VENTURA, Calif. — For Avi Garbow, President Obama’s top lawyer at EPA, a chance to work at outdoor gear maker Patagonia was too good to pass up.

Garbow, EPA’s longest-serving general counsel, this week joined the California-based company known for its surf, climbing and snow gear (E&E News PM, March 4).

"The chance to work for a company like Patagonia was in many ways an unparalleled opportunity for me, professionally and personally," Garbow said.


It’s a dramatic change. He’s trading in the wood paneling of the prestigious law firm where he was a partner and represented some industry clients, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, for the crunchy stylings of a company that started in a tin shed.

But it also gives Garbow a strong platform to fight the Trump administration, including the rollback of major regulations he helped develop during his time at EPA.

Patagonia has become a leading voice in the environmental resistance to President Trump, launching campaigns aimed at protecting national monuments and even suing the administration.

Consequently, the company and its iconoclastic leader, Yvon Chouinard, have become frequent targets of Republicans, including former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and House Natural Resources Committee ranking member Rob Bishop (R-Utah) (E&E Daily, Feb. 14).

Over breakfast outside the company’s cafeteria here earlier this week, Garbow discussed the move, his record collection and what he expects in the next two years of the Trump administration.

"Environmental advocate" is a new position at Patagonia. What are you looking to accomplish in that role?

One of the things that attracted me to Patagonia was the degree to which it is an activist company. It was not fallow ground for someone who wanted to do environmental advocacy; there was already a lot going on. It was tremendously successful. We are in business to save the planet.

I saw an opportunity just to help a little bit, particularly with the next two years of the Trump administration.

What do you anticipate from the Trump administration in the next two years?

The next two years are in many ways far more critical for those of us who are interested in environmental protection, rule of law and sound science than the first two years. The first two years of the Trump administration has been a lot of bluster and rhetoric.

But many of the key Obama administration efforts to address climate change, to deal with "waters of the United States," to deal with chemicals in our agricultural sector have not yet been rolled back. But that’s coming. And we know it’s coming.

Part of the opportunity here is to make sure a company like Patagonia, who’s got a voice — and the courage and capacity to do something with that voice — is ready to meet the challenge of the next two years.

This is when the rollbacks are going to be final, ripe for challenge, and those of us who really care about the environment are going to have to take advantage of the moment to speak up.

And you’re a lawyer. And Patagonia hasn’t shied away from suing. Do you think litigation will be part of that?

Well, possibly. Certainly no decisions have been made, and they are not decisions that I would be making, anyway. Although it has used litigation in the past, it’s not Patagonia’s main way of attacking these things. But I think it is one of the tools in the toolkit.

I read you were the longest-serving EPA general counsel.

You didn’t count the days?

I didn’t. I bet you did.

Somebody did. I beat my predecessor and my good friend Scott Fulton by about two weeks. He said had he known, he would have stayed on longer.

Let’s talk about your record collection. I hear it’s extensive.

[Laughs] Sadly, my record collection is in the attic, as is my CD collection. I’m full on with Spotify. I am an avid listener and lover of virtually all music. I have something special in my heart for the rock ‘n’ roll I grew up with.

Do you have a record you’re particularly proud of?

No. Not to sound too millennial, but I have gone digital.

Are you a musician?

I am. I need to play more. I’ve played guitar for over 40 years.

You could start a Patagonia band.

They haven’t heard me, yet.

Do you keep in touch with career lawyers at EPA, and ask them about the position they’ve been put in during the Trump administration, essentially undoing work they did when they worked for you?

The answer is yes. And there is no question that this has been a very difficult time for them personally and professionally.

It is certainly my view that this administration has taken shortcuts in terms of environmental protection. In some instances, they have not taken full advantage of the advice — either given by or could have otherwise been solicited — from the career staff.

Can you talk about some of the legal justifications for the Trump administration’s rollbacks thus far?

This administration made several missteps early on because of a desire, perhaps, to accelerate their rollback attempts — perhaps to appease industry stakeholders. But most of those efforts, when challenged, were reversed by the courts.

So this administration has an unusually high record of losses when these actions have been challenged. Those were all both procedural and intermediary.

We are now on the cusp of when the administration is going to — in final form — try to roll back and replace several of the strong environmental protections put in place by the Obama administration. This is the season for regulatory rollbacks taking effect.

You’re referring to the waters of the U.S., methane rules …

The Clean Power Plan. It’s still alive. It has not been repealed. Its implementation was stayed by the Supreme Court. Their replacement rule, the so-called Affordable Clean Energy rule, that has not been finalized yet. Mercury and Air Toxic Standards and how the agency looks at calculating costs and benefits, attacks on the scientific integrity of the agency.

All of the things are coming out of the oven fully baked, and this is the time when voices outside this administration need to stand up, challenge them in court if necessary, and make plain why these are contrary to law and science.

Do you think the administration has changed since Scott Pruitt left EPA and Ryan Zinke left Interior?

Many of the missteps were made under the leadership of both Zinke and Pruitt, each of whom had an entire catalog of ethical lapses, which those of us who monitor the history of government and ethics were appalled by.

But what they did was they distracted the administration from putting forth its best work in terms of carrying out its rollback agenda.

We are now at a place where you’ve got [acting Interior Secretary David] Bernhardt and [EPA Administrator Andrew] Wheeler in those positions — each of whom, I think, has expressed their desire to carry out the very same rollbacks and Trump policies, but each of whom will give us fewer distractions. That’s not to say that there are not going to be ethical lapses and there aren’t problems; there are. But not at all to the same degree.

So for those of us who are worried how effective the new leaders are, in some ways I am more worried today than I was six months ago.

This interview has been edited and condensed.