As Feared, Early Reports Indicate the EPA Could Be Gutted

An agency-wide freeze and a leaked internal memo from the new administration suggest drastic changes for the agency.

Over the past year, President Trump’s plans for the Environmental Protection Agency and its four decades of work to protect human health and the environment have been hazy but worrying. The president's rhetoric throughout the presidential campaign made it clear that he would make major changes to the agency, and now, in the past two days, we're starting to get a better sense of what those changes might be and how he might achieve them. 

Last night, ProPublica reported that, according to insider sources, all of the EPA’s grants and contracts have been frozen. Myron Ebell, who works at the libertarian think tank the Competitive Enterprise Institute (which opposes action on climate change) and oversaw the EPA transition under Trump, told ProPublica that the freeze is not unprecedented and will allow the new administration to review any new actions. While this might be true, the freeze on EPA funding, and additional news of a lockdown on EPA communications with the public and the press (and those from other federal agencies), are worrying signs of possible suppression of any government-led science that disagrees with the new administration's fossil fuel-friendly agenda.

The ProPublica news followed an internal transition document published earlier yesterday by Axios, which suggests that the EPA is in for a major overhaul. The leaked document describes the new administration’s first stab at translating Trump’s broad campaign promise to gut the EPA into actionable policies. But there’s not much to go on so far: Axios published only snippets and a summary of the document (which has been authenticated but is not the final version).

The document, reportedly authored by Ebell, appears to be a top-down rethink of the agency and its role, but it doesn't detail how the new administration could actually unwind EPA regulations and funding through bureaucratic and political maneuvering. Despite the lack of details, the overarching themes are likely concerning for anyone who believes that the health of birds and future generations depends on a strong EPA

On a broad level, the document calls for an overhaul of the relationship between science and regulation at the EPA. It argues that the EPA should stop funding research and clarify its standards for data, conflicts of interest, and how science shapes policy. We can’t know the new administration’s motives for certain, but that stance echoes the science-suppression tactics of a recent climate-denying administration in Canada.

The document also names some specific EPA projects that the new administration hopes to dismantle, such as greenhouse gas regulations for power plants (such as the Clean Power Plan for existing plants), automobile fuel economy standards, and the Waters of the U.S. rule, which allows the EPA to regulate wetland pollution under the Clean Water Act.

On its face, the document provides evidence of an upcoming full-scale attack on the EPA’s authority to regulate pollution and protect the environment. However, according to an in-depth analysis at Vox, striking down these policies will likely be an onerous exercise, since they are formal EPA rules. Editor Brad Plumer describes what that process might look like:

[I]f Trump wants to repeal or modify these rules, he can’t just do so with the stroke of a pen. The EPA would have to formally start the time-consuming rulemaking process all over again. That means notifying the public of any rule changes, soliciting public comment for those changes, responding to all those public comments, and then rigorously justifying their new rules—likely before the courts.

That last part is harder than it sounds. The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to regulate many different pollutants, including greenhouse gases. So Trump’s team can’t just say, “We don’t like this regulation; it’s too expensive.” They’d have to come up with a legally sound argument for why, say, the Clean Power Plan is an inappropriate way to regulate CO2 from power plants and what they’d do differently.

Vox’s piece also includes a detailed run-through of five tactics in the new administration's arsenal to attack the EPA (and environmental policies more generally). One all-purpose tactic will be budget cuts. That’s nothing new for the EPA, which has been a regular target for officials looking to reduce government spending. Details are sparse right now, but the Axios release includes three specific figures for environmental programs that total more than $800 million in lost funding. Such a huge hit could be detrimental to myriad programs, but that, of course, would be the purpose. For the new administration, it's becoming increasingly clear that the EPA is a sprawling problem to be dealt with rather than a governmental agency that is vital to protecting wildlife and people.