Environmentalists who were hoping that somehow a Donald Trump presidency wouldn’t be as catastrophic as they feared had those hopes dashed on Friday, when the president-elect announced Myron Ebell as his choice to oversee the transition at the Environmental Protection Agency. Ebell, head of both the right-wing think tank the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Cooler Heads Coalition, has spent most of his career tossing out industry-funded nonsense bombs about climate change.
A non-scientist whose funders have included ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute, and coal giant Murray Energy Corporation, Ebell has been a consistent taunter of both scientists and environmentalists. As a talking head on TV news, he has for years offered false balance on climate change in the form of views so far outside of the mainstream as to be downright bizarre. For Ebell, Al Gore is “an extremist” who “lives in a fantasy world,” the Pope’s encyclical on climate change is “diatribe against modern industrial civilization,” and current climate patterns indicate an imminent ice age rather than a warming planet.
There are several ways a Trump administration could do so. While Secretary of State John Kerry is scrambling to get the treaty implemented before President Obama leaves office, Trump is already signaling that he may try to withdraw from the global agreement in his first year, a move that is within his power and could increase the likelihood that other countries would also shirk their obligations.
Also caught in Trump’s crosshairs is the Clean Power Plan, the rules limiting carbon emissions from coal-burning power plants, which his administration could simply fail to enforce. The administration could also resurrect the Keystone XL pipeline and expand drilling on public land.
But there is much more to the EPA than the protection of the climate. And Ebell also runs a pro-chemical industry front group from the website saferchemicalpolicy.org, where you can read about the “life-enhancing value of chemicals” and the absurd idea that man-made toxic chemicals couldn’t possibly cause cancer because the average human lifespan has increased since 1950.
Indeed, Ebell’s hostility seems to extend to all scientific fact and the entire cause of environmentalism, and he will have a range of opportunities to inflict harm on human health and the environment. Still, certain protections of the earth, water, and land will be harder for him to reverse than others.
Here is a brief overview of some of the damage Trump and Ebell can — and can’t — inflict while they control the EPA.
Among the most vulnerable of the EPA’s efforts are rules that industry has already attacked through the legal system and are now wending their way through the courts. In any of these suits, the EPA could simply stop defending their rules. Or, worse still, they could reissue them so that they are friendlier to industry and less protective of people and the environment. Some of the most consequential of these rules tied up in ongoing suits are:
While it’s illegal to fire civil servants for political reasons, a Trump administration could slash budgets for entire programs affecting the environment both within and outside the EPA. Though much of this would require congressional action, a Republican-dominated Congress working with Ebell could put the funding of certain efforts on the chopping block. Here are a few that have already come under attack:
Particularly frustrating may be the demise of several of the EPA’s long-term efforts, some of which stretch back more than a decade, which could be squelched just as they near completion.
Although candidate Trump threatened to do away with the EPA altogether, he has since walked back that promise, saying that he’s interested in protecting clean air and water. It seems likely that the EPA will continue to exist, at least in name. But even if the Republicans abolished the EPA, it would be more difficult to repeal all the environmental statutes the agency exists to enforce.
Although agency rules and guidelines and advisories are easier to reverse than federal law, even those would be difficult and time-consuming to undo. “Everyone hates the bureaucracy but it could be our friend in the next few years,” said Garcia. “There are laws and processes and procedures and you need scientific data and backup in order to do these things. To roll it back takes time.”
Some environmentalists seem to be taking comfort in the fact that the EPA has already survived an internal attack. In 1981, Reagan tasked Anne Gorsuch Burford with essentially dismantling the agency from within. But Burford went too far with her budget cutting and downsizing and less than two years after she took the post, was forced to resign.
Ironically, the chemical industry may help force the incoming administration to do its job, according to Mike Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center. “Unless EPA delivers meaningful and timely reductions in public exposure to toxic chemicals, then public confidence in the chemical industry will never be restored as they desire. That will mean continued unchecked consumer campaigns and state policy initiatives that require retailers and consumer product manufacturers to end their use of dangerous chemicals,” said Belliveau. “Myron Ebell could be the chemical industry’s worst nightmare in disguise.”
Environmentalists I spoke with agree that public pressure will play a critical role in forcing the EPA to do its job. “If an assault is met with apathy, we’re not going to be as able to stop it,” said Goldston, who predicts that Trump will face a backlash if he goes after environmental safeguards, much as Reagan and George W. Bush did before him.
David Rosner, a historian of public health at Columbia University, reaches even further back for hope that an Ebell-led EPA might not be as destructive as it could be. “Until 1970, we had no federal involvement in environmental protection. This is all very new the idea that the EPA can effect and have any kind of change on the county and world,” said Rosner. “I take solace in the idea that we survived until then.”