Take it from four former U.S. EPA chiefs — this is all going to get much worse before it gets better.
President Trump once remarked that he "could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters." In these political times, when in Congress not one Republican is to the left of a Democrat and not one Democrat is to the right of a Republican, the regulatory mission of EPA is being taxed by the growing gulf between parties.
"The more I see about how persuaded people are becoming of the wisdom and positions of their own tribe, the more concern I have about our ability to speak to people who don’t accept us. I honestly don’t know," said William Reilly, President George H.W. Bush’s EPA chief. "Can we recover from this?"
EPA has been fully politicized, an outgrowth of an increasingly partisan country. It’s an agency without a natural constituency — we all breathe air, we all drink water, we all feel the effects of climate change — but it has many enemies on the right who feel its very existence is an intrusion. It’s a symbol of the regulatory overreach that Trump has vowed to defeat. That climate change has become the defining environmental issue of this era has deepened the polarization around the agency.
"It’s sort of indicative of the problems with this current administration. The president in particular, he does so many things that are controversial in the course of a 24-hour cycle that the stuff happening at EPA is below the radar," said two-time former EPA Administrator Bill Ruckelshaus, a Republican. "That’s too bad because it’s unlikely to trigger the type of demand from the public like in the 1970s that their health and environment be protected. I think they will figure it out, but it will take a long time, and a lot of damage will be done. And that’s the thing about climate change — it’s time-limited."
It wasn’t always like this, the ex-EPA chiefs said. When rivers needed cleaning, air needed clearing and soil needed cleansing, people called on EPA to do its job. But as the agency has increasingly emphasized addressing climate change, after claiming victories in clearing the rivers, air and soils for which it was created, its divisiveness has grown.
Four former agency administrators said that restoring faith in EPA might take an environmental catastrophe. And they’re not sure that will be enough, given the partisan reactions to the lead poisoning crisis in Flint, Mich. Americans have become too tribal, they said, and the anti-regulatory mantra too strong among the political right. At the same time, the visible ills that EPA was created to solve — smog-choked cities, oil-slicked rivers — have largely been remedied. The agency now seems like a nuisance to conservatives who want less government. Just listen to the cheers generated by Trump’s EPA bashing at his rallies, the former officials said. That sentiment has been climbing. Who’s to say when it will peak?
"It’s clearly more antagonistic," Ruckelshaus said of Republicans’ attitude toward EPA. "If [Trump] can get a positive response from his so-called base, he keeps doing it. He keeps making the charges."
In the context of climate change, that could be consigning the United States — the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter — and the world to a perilous fate.
"We’re victims of our success because the air is cleaner, the water is purer and the environment is better protected. But that can start to reverse itself," said Christine Todd Whitman, who ran EPA under President George W. Bush. "It’s one of those things that I don’t want us to have to reach another crisis in order to deal with it. Americans respond well to crises, but [climate change] is an incremental one, so this is going to affect a lot of lives in the process."
‘Easy to hate’
While all politics is more partisan these days, EPA is an acute example, Whitman said. It’s also a key agency through which Trump can fulfill his campaign promises.
In part, that’s a product of gridlock. Congress is unlikely to reopen bedrock environmental laws because no one wants to cast a vote removing air, water and public health protections. So policy change at EPA is subject to executive authority.
What’s resulted is a pingpong effect, said David Konisky, an associate professor at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. As U.S. politics has grown more polarized, those swings have been sharper. EPA is a talking point for reining in regulations, a "scapegoat for any sluggishness in the economy," he said. That’s a huge shift from the bipartisan consensus in the 1970s on the need for environmental protection, he added.
The dramatic shift under Trump is in some ways a response to how aggressively President Obama used executive authority under EPA to tackle climate change. Congress didn’t move on legislation to regulate greenhouse gases after the agency determined that those pollutants endanger public health. The Supreme Court upheld that ruling.
But lawmakers did try. And it seemed to intensify partisan divisions. The failure of greenhouse gas cap-and-trade legislation in 2010 in part gave rise to the tea party, which helped defeat GOP lawmakers who were once vocal on climate, or kept them silent on the matter. So that led to climate regulations. Obama’s Clean Power Plan, the rule that aimed to slash power-sector emissions 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, became a conservative bogeyman for unwanted government intervention.
"They didn’t act. EPA would have been much happier had Congress acted. They didn’t want to do this regulation. But because the Supreme Court held up the endangerment finding, they had to act," Whitman said. "Regulations are always easy to hate. And you’ve always had a contingent in the Democratic Party that thought you could never regulate enough and Republicans who never wanted to regulate anything. But the majority has always been in the center."
Observers of EPA history note that current EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt isn’t the first to try to dismantle the agency. President Reagan’s EPA chief, Anne Gorsuch Burford, disagreed with the agency’s purpose and wanted to gut its regulations from the inside. But scandal, internal strife and, ultimately, Congress led to her ouster.
But that was then. Such a chain of events is unlikely under Trump and Pruitt. We are in a period during which 65 percent of conservative Republicans think stricter environmental laws and regulations cost too many jobs and hurt the economy, according to a Pew Research Center survey.
On top of that, much more money has been poured into environmental fights — especially on climate change — to harden right against left.
"Unlike the Gorsuch term, where there was a Congress that was willing to hold her and the agency accountable for her actions, we don’t have a Congress today that’s willing to do the same," Konisky said.
Diluting environmental goals
Events in the past two weeks underscore how much of a political football EPA has become.
On Tuesday, Pruitt floated the idea of banning scientists from federal science advisory panels if they’ve received research grants. Pruitt suggested they could be biased, echoing House Science, Space and Technology Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who has pushed legislation to that effect. Doing so would effectively disqualify some of the most knowledgeable subject-matter experts in the field, many of whom get EPA grants to conduct work at major research universities, according to observers.
On Monday, Pruitt heralded the end of a practice known on the right as "sue-and-settle." Conservatives and industry had long accused the Obama administration of acting in cahoots with environmental groups by encouraging them to sue for not enforcing environmental laws and then settling those cases behind closed doors. Environmental groups call this fiction.
And last week, Pruitt announced the rollback of the Clean Power Plan in a ceremony with Kentucky coal miners. Afterward, he told agriculture and industry representatives that they "count more" than the environmental groups with which he’s rarely met.
This was a celebration of removing environmental protections by a man leading an agency whose mission is to protect the environment.
"This is a very different era. There’s nothing traditional about the current approach that the president is taking and the EPA administrator is taking. There’s been language used that essentially delegitimized the efforts," Reilly said. "Always to question and to reduce the environmental goals and performance objectives — that is all new."
That’s not to say EPA has been universally beloved until now. Carol Browner, who led the agency under President Clinton, said the growing anti-regulatory sentiment among Republicans was strong in the 1990s when then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) pushed his "Contract With America."
Most Americans opposed what House Republicans were trying to do, Browner said of the 1990s. She said most Americans similarly object to what Pruitt and Trump are doing today. (Pew found that 59 percent of respondents believed environmental regulations and laws are worth their cost.)
But back then, it was largely a matter of getting the message out when it hadn’t gotten much attention. Now, Browner acknowledges, the flow of information is so fast and compartmentalized that countering the narrative — and reaching across partisan divides — is inherently more complicated for an agency like EPA.
"Having fought through the Gingrich stuff, it was really rough. It was a different time. No one could tweet. I don’t even think I had a BlackBerry at EPA," Browner said. "The ability for information to move is very different these days. The ability to target audiences is different these days, and that’s what the Trump administration is very good at."
A really strange time
Still, EPA’s defenders have been able to use the same tools to play defense. Despite Trump’s insisting on a 31 percent cut to EPA’s budget, enough Republicans joined Democrats to block many of those changes.
To those like Browner and John Walke, a former EPA attorney who is now at the Natural Resources Defense Council, Congress’ refusal to take Trump and Pruitt’s budget to the president’s desk hints that brighter days await.
"The Trump administration and Trump’s EPA are aberrations. I think there are good-faith Republican environment and energy experts who cringe daily at the nihilism and the excesses and the extremism of the Trump administration," Walke said.
Such Republicans do exist, even if they’re fewer in number than when the burning Cuyahoga River and Rachel Carson’s pesticides exposé "Silent Spring" galvanized a nation into action. The House Climate Solutions Caucus, which consists of 30 Republicans, signals that some middle ground exists between Republicans and Democrats.
Transforming those GOP lawmakers into votes and platforms that advance environmental causes, however, is a long slog, Reilly said. It’s also a function of the political times that have sent Trump and Pruitt into office.
"Those of us who have conversations with members of Congress," Reilly said, "who privately concede that what the mainstream science says is true but consider that it would put their primary elections in doubt … some of those people are going to have to reconsider."
Trump and Pruitt play to the same base that might challenge a climate-conscious Republican, meaning such voters are unlikely to accept EPA as a positive force for society. On top of all that, climate change is a slower-moving, less tangible environmental challenge than the ailments caused by soot and toxic waste.
"I don’t get the sense that in their actions they really believe in regulation. They would prefer to see it go away," Ruckelshaus said. "But they do feel it necessary to describe what [Pruitt] is doing as protecting clean air and clean water. But that’s not what he’s actually doing."
Few think Trump and Pruitt can be convinced to act proactively for environmental reasons, unlike previous GOP administrations. Reagan negotiated the Montreal Protocol, the international treaty to reduce pollution that degraded the ozone layer. And while it’s true Republican presidents have signed most of the nation’s major environmental laws — President Nixon created EPA and signed the Clean Air Act, and Bush the elder greenlighted its expansion — those also came with a Democratic Congress.
Those Republican presidents also had personal motivations. Nixon wanted to distract the nation from the Vietnam War and box out one of his biggest Democratic presidential challengers on the environment, then-Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine. Bush senior wanted to make an example of Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis, and he sought to embarrass the former Massachusetts governor by taking a boat across Boston Harbor to accuse the Democratic front-runner of ignoring pollution.
The difference between those periods and now, however, is reflective of politics writ large. As the nation goes, so too will EPA.
"I was preceded by a Republican and followed by a Republican. While we didn’t agree on everything, we all agreed on the mission of the agency," Browner said. "That is not what we have right now. I think we are living in a really, really strange time."