Donald Trump is a crude buffoon who spends his days picking Twitter fights with people he sees on TV. He displays no skill, sophistication or capacity for subtle nuance in foreign or domestic policy. But Trump's personal ineffectualness has not kept his administration from rapidly reversing the direction of the federal government in key areas, thanks to a few deft players who are implementing an aggressive ideological agenda.
Perhaps the most disturbingly effective person on the Trump team is Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt. In the few months since Trump's inauguration, Pruitt, has transformed the EPA into a supine lap dog for the oil, gas and coal industries and is well on his way to erasing years of environmental policy built on scientific research.
As Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt sued the EPA to block regulations that business interests found annoying. Industry lobbyists frequently provided him with draft letters that Pruitt signed and sent off to federal regulators as if they were his own words. And his coziness with the people the EPA is supposed to regulate has not changed since he took over as the nation's chief environmental officer.
A Freedom of Information Act request filed by the New York Times revealed that the calendar of the EPA boss lists one meeting after another with executives and lobbyists from agribusiness, the chemical industry and, of course, oil companies. He regularly attends dinners and conferences hosted by industry organizations, such as the American Petroleum Institute and the American Farm Bureau Federation. Just days before the EPA reversed a ban on a dangerous pesticide that is known to have ill effects on children, Pruitt huddled with the chief executive of Dow Chemical, the manufacturer of the pesticide. It is not difficult to imagine what they talked about.
Ignoring scientists and specialists within his own agency, Pruitt seeks counsel outside the EPA from lobbyists, lawyers and longtime allies who share his pro-industry attitude. The result has been dramatic. Pruitt has loosened, delayed or sought to repeal a wide range of environmental rules covering concerns that include spills and explosions at chemical plants, methane leaks from oil and gas drilling sites and pollution of waterways.
Pruitt has become Trump's lead man in attacking climate science and dismantling American compliance with the Paris accord on climate change. A specific target is President Obama's Clean Power Plan that sought to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.
According to a new report in the Washington Post, Pruitt may soon be instituting a competitive debate within the EPA about whether human activity contributes to climate change, a debate that could be expanded to other agencies, such as the Department of Energy and NASA. While this may seem like a reasonable idea — what does it hurt to talk things over? — the reality is that it is a stalling tactic. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that the pace of climate change is being increased by human exploitation of fossil fuels. An open-ended internal debate pitting real scientists against shills for industry has only one purpose: prevent government agencies from doing anything about the biggest environmental danger threatening our country and the world.
Pruitt is cleverly undermining the role of science in his agency in other little noticed ways. In May and June, he dismissed 47 members of the EPA's Board of Scientific Counselors, a group of respected scientific experts who advise the agency. Now, only 11 members are left, and all meetings for the summer and fall have been canceled. If the board is reconstituted, the expectation is that it will be stacked with industry-friendly replacements.
Pruitt has said that he wants to shift the EPA's focus to "tangible pollution." One would assume, then, that a successful, ongoing project like the cleanup of Chesapeake Bay would have his support. Instead, funding for the EPA's Chesapeake program that is protecting one of America's most abundant fisheries is being zeroed out in the Trump administration's budget plan. Similar projects around the country are also facing drastic budget reductions. At this rate, there will be plenty of tangible pollution for the EPA to deal with in the years to come.
If friends of the environment think the way to stop this assault on the nation's land, water and air is to somehow drive Trump from office, they may want to think again. Pruitt is not Trump's man; he is his party's man. As long as so many Republicans continue to betray the legacy of that great Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, and even the legacy of the lesser Republican president who created the EPA, Richard Nixon, nothing will be different.
Don't expect President Mike Pence to save the planet.