Concerned Scientists' Kimmell on Pruitt's first days at agency, focus on federalism

As U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt navigates his first week leading the agency, what changes are ahead for the role the federal government will play in environmental protection? During today's OnPoint, Kenneth Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, explains why he believes a shift in regulatory power to the states could be detrimental to the environment. He also weighs in on how new questions surrounding the endangerment finding could shape what we see coming out of EPA on carbon dioxide regulation.


Monica Trauzzi: Hello, and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. With me today is Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Ken, thanks for coming back on the show. Nice to see you.

Kenneth Kimmell: My pleasure to be here.

Monica Trauzzi: So with the swearing-in of new EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt this past Friday, there's been no shortage of news and speculation about what's to come in his first days at the agency. Pruitt spoke to EPA employees Tuesday morning and really settled on three themes in his speech. He talked about federalism, process and rule of law. You believe that a Pruitt EPA signals the end of a strong federal role in environmental protection. Why and how does that translate to what we might see on regulations?

Kenneth Kimmell: Well, I did say that in a blog, and I have a deep concern that Scott Pruitt as the administrator does mean the end of a strong federal role. Part of it is his record as attorney general. It's not a record in which there was vigorous policing of polluters in Oklahoma. Instead, most of the career attorneys who were involved in environmental enforcement in Oklahoma were drafted to start filing suits against EPA instead of polluters in Oklahoma. So that's of great concern. Coupled with that is what we're hearing about potential budget cuts at EPA, which could be devastating to EPA's ability to enforce the laws, and I know as a former environmental commissioner, in a state without good enforcement, you don't get good compliance with clean air and clean water laws. So it's the combination of his record and the budget cuts that deeply concern me that we're moving backwards rather than forwards on clean air and clean water.

Monica Trauzzi: Right. So you're the former head of the Massachusetts DEP. So if states have more power, essentially, in environmental regulation, why isn't that a good thing?

Kenneth Kimmell: Let me put a little reality to this. My — the agency I used to run, the Department of Environmental Protection in Massachusetts, it's a great agency, but in 2002 it had 1,200 employees. It's down to about 600 now. And that story, that's blue state Massachusetts that cares a lot about the environment. This is a story that's happening all over the country. State environmental agencies are strapped, they've lost a lot of their best people, they don't have the technical expertise to do a lot of the complex enforcement, and so this idea that you could scrap the federal role and then transfer it all to the states is a myth. There needs to be a partnership of the federal government and the states, and to have both do what they do best. And you can't just leave it all to the states. It's not realistic and it's a formula, really, for disaster.

Monica Trauzzi: So if we have small staff on the state level and then big staff cuts on the federal level at EPA, what do you think that could mean?

Kenneth Kimmell: I think that means less cops on the beat. I think that means less inspections of landfills to see if they're leaking. That means less water quality sampling. That means less enforcement against polluters. It means more Flint, Michigans. It means more chemical spills like the one that happened in West Virginia. So that's the result, and I don't believe for a second that the voters who voted in this election voted for that outcome. I don't think they did at all, and so I think this course that we're on is a dangerous one and it's not one that the public will welcome at all.

Monica Trauzzi: But there's been a lot said about the Obama administration that's negative in terms of how many regulations were put into place. Did Obama overregulate and is Trump just sort of trying to rebalance things?

Kenneth Kimmell: Yeah, I wouldn't say Obama overregulated. One thing to remember is, during the first term of the president's, mostly what he was doing was issuing regulations that the prior administration had refused to do and he was under court order to do. So there's many examples of that. So I don't think there was an overregulation, but I do think a lot of regulations came out because there was a period of time for about eight years when there was a lax regulation of the federal government, and Obama corrected that. Now, I think the one thing you can say, which we think is a good thing, is that President Obama did direct EPA to tackle climate change, as he was under a court order to do and which was the right thing to do. That's the area where EPA really added some regulations to what had been done before.

Monica Trauzzi: Right, Clean Power Plan, the biggie, right. And it's expected that Pruitt will, in some way, revoke the Clean Power Plan. He recently questioned whether the agency even possesses the tools under the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon dioxide, so how does the injection of that question into the discussion on the Clean Power Plan change the game and what does it tell us about the type of regulation we might see come into place to replace the power plan?

Kenneth Kimmell: Right. Well, that's a great question. First of all, I have to say I'm very troubled by that statement in the Wall Street Journal because it seems to me to be in direct contradiction to what Attorney General Pruitt told the Senate committee during the hearing, in which I thought he said pretty clearly the law is settled on this, we're not going back and relitigating the endangerment finding, and then we hear in the Wall Street Journal, well, I'm not so sure that EPA really does have the authority. First of all, I would say to him, lawyer to lawyer, go back and read the three Supreme Court cases that say really clearly EPA has a duty to deal with carbon pollution and to deal with climate change. That's absolutely settled. But also what should be settled is the science of climate change, and the idea that Mr. Pruitt would reopen this endangerment finding is really crazy. This finding was supported by the world's greatest scientists, including scientists at some of the most trusted federal agencies like NOAA and NASA, and to say he's going to reconsider that finding and potentially reopen it is absolutely a disaster from a scientific perspective.

Monica Trauzzi: But if it's reopened, then it buys time, yes? And a replacement for the power plan wouldn't have to come immediately.

Kenneth Kimmell: Well, I suppose so, but I would hate to be the lawyer trying to defend EPA in court based on a finding that carbon pollution doesn't endanger public health and the environment. That's a loser of a case. And Mr. Pruitt today talked about the rule of law. That was one of the three principles he focused on. The rule of law is EPA has a duty to deal with carbon pollution. If he doesn't like the Clean Power Plan, if he thinks there's a better way to do it or a different way to do it, we're all ears, but just negating that plan, repealing it without any replacement is unacceptable.

Monica Trauzzi: And we have — we've heard some talk about a potential efficiency standard for plants.

Kenneth Kimmell: So far, we've — just talk. I haven't seen any credible plan to replace the Clean Power Plan or to make up the emissions reductions that we would get from that plan with something else.

Monica Trauzzi: Something else that UCS has worked on extensively are the fuel economy standards for cars that were put in place by the Obama administration. What kind of deal do you believe could be struck between the Trump administration and the automakers that could potentially open the door to lessening the standards?

Kenneth Kimmell: Well, first of all, I think once again the science and the facts behind the standards are very strong. We're on a glide path towards meeting those standards at a lower cost and actually earlier than was expected when the rules went in place. And they are, along with the Clean Power Plan, one of the most important ways that we can cost-effectively address climate change. What I worry about is that this is a president who's made it clear that his number one priority is manufacturing jobs in the United States, and I would hope that the carmakers are not offering a deal to the president whereby they agree to make some commitments to hiring in exchange for the relaxation of those standards. I actually think those standards —

Monica Trauzzi: Job creation's not a bad thing.

Kenneth Kimmell: Job creation is a great thing. I actually think those standards have helped create jobs. The car industry is in a much better place today than it was back in 2012 when those standards were enacted. So I think these actually help. And so what we've got to do is make sure the record's clear that we can have a robust auto sector and we can have fuel-efficient cars. They are not — one is not the enemy of the other.

Monica Trauzzi: But do you really think that automakers would do that, would move to push for lesser standards? I mean, they all agreed to these standards when they were put into place, and many of them want these types of standards.

Kenneth Kimmell: Absolutely, and that's — some of the companies are supporters of the standards. Some are being quiet about it but quietly support it, but there are a few companies have come out and called for weakening of the standards. So the auto industry is not a monolith on this issue and there's differences among them, and the ones, not surprisingly, who are supporting the standards are the ones who have made the biggest investment in highly fuel-efficient cars and electric vehicles, and they're going to make money off of these standards.

Monica Trauzzi: E&E has reported that Administrator Pruitt will be requesting a 24-7 security detail. It's a pretty unique request. I'm curious what your thoughts are on that, having, you know, been in this world for a very long time. What do you make of that?

Kenneth Kimmell: I don't really know what to make of it. I understand that former administrators have also gotten extensive security protection. I don't know if it's 24-7. I certainly, and the people that I work with, have no ill will towards him and hope he doesn't feel that he's in a position where he's insecure, but I would say that there's a lot of his agenda that does need to be rethought.

Monica Trauzzi: All right. We will end it there on that note then. Thank you for coming on the show.

Kenneth Kimmell: Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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