Any hope, as quixotic as it might have been, that President-elect Donald J. Trump might be less of a threat to the environment than candidate Trump has gone up in soon-to-be unregulated smoke with his picking Oklahoma Atty. Gen. Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency.
Pruitt, who has described the science on climate change as "unsettled" (it's not), has sued the EPA challenging its authority to regulate under the Clean Water Act, and over President Obama's Clean Power Plan to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants, among other issues. He argued before Congress earlier this year that states should have the primary responsibility for environmental regulation, reserving federal action only for water and air pollution issues that cross state lines.
"Air and water quality issues can cross state lines, and can sometimes require federal intervention," Pruitt said. "At the same time, the EPA was never intended to be our nation's frontline environmental regulator. The states were to have regulatory primacy."
No, the states were not, as President Nixon made clear when he informed Congress why he agreed to create the EPA:
"Our national government today is not structured to make a coordinated attack on the pollutants which debase the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land that grows our food. Indeed, the present governmental structure for dealing with environmental pollution often defies effective and concerted action," the White House wrote. "Despite its complexity, for pollution control purposes the environment must be perceived as a single, interrelated system. Present assignments of departmental responsibilities do not reflect this interrelatedness."
In fact, Pruitt's vision of giving primacy to the states would counter the founding principle behind the EPA of trying to gain a big-picture understanding of what was happening to the environment, and to formulate strategies to "effectively ensure the protection, development and enhancement of the total environment itself."
At a time when the world faces catastrophic environmental change, letting individual states set lower local thresholds for emissions of greenhouse gases is an insane idea. This is a global problem that needs to be addressed nation-to-nation, not oil-drilling state by oil-drilling state.
Pruitt has made no secret of his close relationship with the oil-and-gas industry, a major player in Oklahoma, so it's hard not to see his appointment as putting the fox in charge of the hen house. The New York Times reported two years ago that Pruitt was among several state attorneys general who were working with oil and gas industry figures to challenge federal laws and jurisdiction over regulations — including submitting letters on his attorney general stationery to the EPA that were written by energy lobbyists.
This doesn't bode well for the environment. Trump himself is a climate change denier — he once called it a hoax perpetrated by China to give it a competitive advantage over more regulated U.S. industries. Placing Pruitt in charge of the agency that sets environmental regulations will likely be an unmitigated disaster. A persistent plaintiff in lawsuits against the EPA's regulatory power will now be the person in charge of defending those lawsuits and the regulations he is suing to do away with.
Democrats in the Senate have already been pondering whether to try to block Pruitt's appointment. In a slate full of objectionable nominees, the Democrats need to pick their battles judiciously. Any incoming president — including Trump — deserves some leeway in assembling his Cabinet and top administrators. But a president is not entitled to blind acquiescence, especially when the appointment is so antithetical to the job at hand.
There is more at play here than Trump simply tapping someone to pursue his pro-business vision of fewer unnecessary (as he sees them) regulations. Rather, Trump wants to turn custody of the nation's environmental health over to someone who refuses to recognize that it is at risk. That is too dangerous a step for Senate Democrats to let pass without a fight.
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