If you’ve been wondering which environmental protections the incoming administration will target and how exactly they’ll try to undo them, take a look at the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s legislative agenda, “Free to Prosper.” Just a few months ago, this radical plan to dismantle environmental safeguards would have been dismissed as the wacky wish list of a conservative fringe group. But with Donald Trump headed to the White House and Myron Ebell, CEI’s director, overseeing the transition of the Environmental Protection Agency, the report, which was released last week, is a chilling preview of the attacks on environmental and health regulations that are likely to come — and a must-read for anyone trying to avert them.
Beyond laying out specific paths to destruction, CEI’s legislative roadmap helps explain the group’s twisted logic for attacking environmental laws in the first place, something that may be lost on the vast majority of Americans, who want clean air and water, accept the reality of climate change, and are not steeped in anti-governmental legal theory.
As CEI sees it, efforts to address the effects of pollution from fossil fuels on our climate are really a “war on affordable energy.” Bizarrely, the report uses a decline in global death rates due to extreme weather since the 1920s to justify the continued burning of oil and coal and its claim that carbon-based fuels “increase life expectancy.” While fossil fuels have unquestionably kept many people warm over the past century, alternative energy sources can also provide plenty of heat — and have the additional appeal of reducing the likelihood of extreme weather events.
Most disingenuously, CEI presents its efforts to do away with climate protections as stemming from a concern for the poor, since “energy costs already impose real burdens on low-income households.” In truth, the poor are disproportionately affected by climate change. And, of course, huge energy and chemical companies are the ones who stand to benefit most from the assault on climate and other environmental protections suggested in the report. Not coincidentally, many of these same powerful interests, including Exxon, Dow, Texaco, the American Petroleum Institute, and the Koch Brothers have funded CEI.
Trump has already made it pretty clear that he would like to undo the Paris Climate Agreement. CEI lays out a plan for doing so by reclassifying the agreement as a treaty requiring ratification in the Senate, which would almost certainly fail to receive the necessary two thirds vote.
CEI also calls for overturning the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which includes carbon dioxide and other pollution standards for power plants. If Congress can’t dismantle the actual Clean Power Plan rule, which the report describes as “an unlawful power grab that will increase consumer electricity prices,” the think tank suggests a plan B, defunding the EPA’s implementation of it.
Budgets may be the most direct way to paralyze environmental progress, and CEI proposes slashing a number of them. “Free to Prosper” also calls on Congress to cut off the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, an intergovernmental group that gathers and shares information on strategies for addressing greenhouse gas emissions and preparations for the impacts of climate change.
Although some environmental advocates have offered assurances that dismantling environmental laws will be difficult and time consuming, the CEI report suggests specific strategies the Trump administration might pursue, such as amending the Clean Air Act so that the EPA no longer has the ability to affect climate policy; altering the Clean Water Act so that the EPA has no power to regulate wetlands; and reforming the Endangered Species Act so that it’s harder to add threatened animals.
Generally speaking, whatever natural resource you might think of, CEI believes it doesn’t need protection. So the Waters of the U.S. Rule, which limits pollution in lakes and rivers, should be overturned; the federal government should transfer ownership of land to the states or private citizens, or at the very least make it available for “resource production”; fuel standards for cars should be allowed to expire; and Congress should push back against the Fish and Wildlife Service, which, according to CEI, is engaged in “a vast new endangered species power grab.”
If Congress follows the “Freedom to Prosper” blueprint, it will also roll back restrictions on toxic chemicals. The group suggests eliminating funding for what it calls “activist research,” which includes the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences study of the endocrine disruptor BPA, and for “Safer Choice,” through which EPA helps companies eliminate toxic chemicals from their products. Another CEI target is IRIS, the EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System, which identifies hazardous environmental chemicals, such as formaldehyde, styrene, and TCE. IRIS has proven particularly troublesome to industry because it targets widely used chemicals and, as the report notes, drives clean air and drinking water regulations.
Most people want government to keep them safe from such dangers. But CEI seems to have no compunction about eliminating efforts designed to protect health, even when they’re aimed at babies, such as the government’s efforts to restrict dangerous chemicals called phthalates from kids’ products. Although the Consumer Products Safety Commission has been working on such a ban for years, the report recommends conducting oversight hearings that would slow the process further. It’s worth noting that Exxon Mobil, which has funded CEI — and whose CEO is now poised to become Trump’s secretary of state — manufactures phthalates and opposes the ban.
That conflict of interest is just one of many. “This is standard CEI — hysteria, nonsense, and dishonesty to promote the most extreme pro-chemical manufacturer agenda,” said Daniel Rosenberg, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “These people are not relevant players, they’re at the margins,” he added. “Or at least they used to be.”