By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor
From rolling back regulations to silencing scientists and opening up public lands for private exploitation, the Trump administration’s attacks on the environment are unprecedented in the modern era. Just pulling out of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation (announced by Trump on June 1 this past year) and withdrawing the Clean Power Plan (announced by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt Oct. 11) would be enough to mark it as the most environmentally destructive administration since Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring helped launch the modern environmental movement in 1962. So would another unprecedented act: slashing the size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments by roughly 2 million acres — the first size-reduction since 1962.
“Republican administrations in the past have been more pro-business,” David Pettit, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council told Random Lengths News. “But now, I think Pruitt, I assume with Trump’s blessing, has taken us to a different level of just outright destructiveness.” But those serious environmental assaults have recently been overshadowed by a rash of high-profile scandals involving Pruitt (more on them below)—and those are only the most high-profile examples out of a countless flood of destructive actions.
“We at NRDC, I was reading yesterday, the count is up to 58 lawsuits against the Trump administration over rollbacks,” Pettit said. “Eight have gone to judgment and we won all of them.” There are far too many specific actions to cover in a single story, but they can be grasped, at least roughly, by examining the narratives used to promote, justify, excuse or deny what is actually being done.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump’s environmental views were best expressed in two phony false narratives—a blame-shifting one, attacking climate change by calling it a “Chinese hoax,” and a credit-stealing narrative, claiming to be an award-winning environmentalist.
Typically, Trump never even pretended to bother with evidence for either of his claims. But—as Politico reported in May 2016, Trump actually believes global warming is real—at least when it threatened to erode his seaside golf resort in County Clare, Ireland. So, global warming is real when it threatens Trump’s property, but it’s “a Chinese hoax,” when that narrative helps him politically.
As for environmental awards, Golf Digest fact-checked a similar award claim in a 2014 interview. “Donald Trump’s environmental record when it comes to golf could hardly be worse,” filmmaker Anthony Baxter—who did two documentaries on the subject—told them.
No wonder Trump’s so short on specific details. In Trump’s universe, lack of evidence is a feature, not a bug. Sweeping narratives with superlative claims have emotional power that details would only drag down—even if they weren’t so lopsidedly against him. At the EPA, Pruitt has followed suit with his “back to basics” narrative, falsely implying that the EPA has somehow strayed from its original purpose, and that Pruitt is somehow saving the agency as well as the environment, when he’s actually doing his best to decimate them both. As laid out in the EPA’s year-end review, Pruitt’s “‘back-to-basics agenda’ centered on returning EPA to its proper role via three objectives:
1) Refocusing the agency back to its core mission
2) Restoring power to the states through cooperative federalism
3) Adhering to the rule of law and improving agency processes”
But none of these “objectives” corresponds with objective reality. The first simply restates the core false claim. If it means anything, it should mean more basic enforcement actions to protect clean air and water. “Enforcement actions have dropped significantly since Pruitt came on board,” Pettit said. “It’s hard to say you really care about cleaning up Superfund sites in clean air and clean water, when you’re not in the field doing what needs to be done to find those sites and clean them up.”
First-year statistics released in early February showed enforcement levels at a 10-year low, at least, with a 20 percent decline in new civil cases and a 30 percent decline in new criminal cases.
Pruitt’s EPA did claim an increase in criminal penalties, but as NBC noted: “Of the $2.98 billion in total criminal fines in fiscal year 2017, $2.8 billion came from Volkswagen’s penalties for cheating on emissions tests, which the company agreed to shortly before Trump took office.”
More broadly, Pruitt has taken three major actions to roll back clean air and clean water regulations. Withdrawing the Clean Power Plan not only weakens efforts to reduce climate change, it also enables other forms of continued pollution. According to a pre-Trump EPA fact sheet, the plan benefits include:
- By 2030, emissions of sulfur dioxide from power plants will be 90 percent lower compared to 2005 levels, and emissions of nitrogen oxide will be 72 percent lower.
- Because these pollutants can create dangerous soot and smog, the historically low levels mean we will avoid thousands of premature deaths and mean thousands fewer asthma attacks and hospitalizations in 2030 and every year beyond.
These are exactly the sorts of key clean air protections which Pruitt claims to be focused on protecting. Instead, he’s doing his best to throw them out. In a second action, Pruitt has withdrawn the mid-term evaluation of mileage standards for light-duty vehicles for model years 2022 to 2025. The standards were set in 2012, primarily focused on greenhouse gases, with a mid-term review for potential fine-tuning. That review, completed just before Trump took office, found that the costs of vehicle compliance would be substantially less than initially projected, while benefits remained far larger. New cars would save owners almost $4,000 compared to current models, on average, because fuel savings will far outweigh the car’s new technology costs. And the air would be cleaner as well.
A third Pruitt action suspended the Obama-era Clean Water Rule (aka “ Waters of the United States”) for two years, in order to repeal and replace it with a much looser industry-friendly version that would do substantially less to protect clean water. Pruitt’s rationale was that there was “litigation,” which he himself had helped start, producing “regulatory uncertainty.” So, to combat uncertainty, he’s introduced a whole new level of uncertainty never seen before.
As Environmental Defense Fund Senior Vice President David Festa wrote last September, “If any agency action could be withdrawn solely due to pending or potential litigation and ‘regulatory uncertainty’ — a catch phrase of this administration — our nation’s regulatory structures would be in constant flux, lack rigor and lose factual and scientific basis.” It’s hard to imagine how uncertainty could get any higher than it would if Trump and Pruitt got their way.
The second claimed objective — restoring power to the states — flies in the face of widespread state-level conflict with Pruitt’s actions. Most pointedly: California has historically had the power to set its own fuel-economy standards, which other states can also adopt. Pruitt wants that to end, because California refuses to go along with Pruitt’s roll-back of the midterm review discussed above.
“As attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt filed a number of cases  against the EPA. The theory behind a lot of them was that the states had the power to do something that’s weaker than what the EPA wanted them to do, Pettit said. “Now his position is, well, the states don’t have the power to do anything stronger than what EPA wants,” he said.
Another Trump/Pruitt priority was rolling back the Clean Power Plan, which had target levels specifically tailored on a state-by-state basis, and gave states wide leeways on how to meet those goals.
This Baracl Obama-era rule devoted enormous time and resources to the goal of providing states with planning frameworks fitted to their specific needs—just the sort of thing that Pruitt rhetorically claims is a key concern of his. But if he really believes in it, then why destroy so much work done to achieve it? The third claimed object —“Adhering to the rule of law and improving agency processes”— is an even more ludicrous joke.
As Pettit’s earlier comments suggest, Pruitt’s rule-making process has been abysmally shoddy. And Pettit is hardly alone.
“While Sierra Club and other organizations are suing Pruitt over his often clumsily illegal short-circuiting of properly established safeguards, his delays will harm the very people he is supposed to be protecting,” the Sierra Club’s Bill Corcoran told Random Lengths. Corcoran is Western Regional Campaign Director for the Beyond Coal Campaign.
“Pruitt has illegally rushed actions to remove clean air and clean water protections, especially to benefit his fossil fuel industry clientele,” Corcoran said. “From mercury in the air, to coal ash waste in water, to the dangerous agricultural poison chlorpyrifos, which harms the brains of children, Pruitt has put the lie to his claims that he is returning the agency to its original mission.”
“They’ve done some really dumb things, legally,” Pettit said. “With federal regulations, procedurally you’re very constrained by the Federal Administrative Procedure Act.… Pruitt came in and said, ‘Well we’re going to put this on hold, we’re going to put these methane rules on hold, we’re going to stop doing the ozone designations,’ without any process, he just wrote it down on a piece of paper.”
So NRDC and others sued. “Those are some of the wins, where the court said, ‘You can’t do this, come on. Maybe you can change the regulation, sure. But you have to go through the whole process, notice and comment, put your reasons out there, that takes nine months or a year or something, and they wanted to get stuff done like right away.”
That was the problem in a nutshell: sweeping promises versus the requirements of law. So much for the sweeping promise of “adhering to the rule of law and improving agency processes.”
The narrative frames discussed above are hardly exhaustive. Consider, for example, Pruitt’s oft-stated claim to be “saving money” through “regulatory roll-back,” which was echoed institutionally in the EPA’s “year-end review:”
“In year one, EPA finalized 22 deregulatory actions, saving Americans more than $1 billion in regulatory costs.”
This like saying, “abolishing the [Los Angeles Police Department] would save LA residents $1.2 billion in crime control costs,” as if there were no benefits from crime control.
“Whenever new regulation comes out of EPA, there’s a cost-benefit analysis,” Pettit said. Ignoring the lost benefits seriously misrepresents the “savings.” Benefits have to outweigh costs at multiple policy/decision levels. A 2011 EPA study projected that clean air programs established by the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments would most like produce a $2 trillion benefit — exceeding costs by 30-1. Or, consider a more visceral example: Yes, it cost billions of dollars to put seatbelts and airbags into cars, but millions of Americans are alive and well today as a result. Car companies fought those safety regulations tooth-and-nail for years. Now they advertise them. In the long run, everyone wins—even those who fought so hard against it.
But this particular misleading narrative hides a variety of different sins. One links up with Trump’s “Chinese hoax” claim, which he waved off as a joke in a Fox and Friends interview, even as he doubled down, claiming, “this is done for the benefit of China, because China does not do anything to help climate change,”
A decade ago, it might have been credible. But not anymore. During the 2000s, China suffered as many as 750,000 premature deaths due to dirty air. Today China’s become a leading investor in renewable energy, exactly the opposite of what Trump claims.
“The U.S. seems to be abrogating our opportunity to lead the world markets in clean energy and electric vehicles and just hand that leadership to the Chinese, for nothing,” Pettit noted. “I’m sure the Chinese are happy and incredulous that we would be dumb enough to do that, but that’s what I see happening.”
But even companies making fossil fuel engines have been damaged by Pruitt, who reversed an Obama-era rule to protect a single small manufacturer of “gliders”—truck chassis, that can be put into service with dirty engines, not subject to new vehicle regulations. “The big truck manufacturers hate this whole thing,” Pettit said, because they’re pouring tremendous resources into new cleaner-burning engines, and competing with the dirtiest vehicles imaginable. But that one manufacturer made the right political connections, in line with another narrative Pruitt loves to invoke—“consulting with stakeholders.”
Indeed, a Reuters analysis, found that “Pruitt met with representatives of the industries EPA regulates at least 105 times from Feb. 22 to Aug. 10 of last year, making up about 77 percent of his total meetings,” of which roughly half were “representatives of the oil, gas, coal and mining industries,” according to calendar records, “But Pruitt met only four times with environmental groups eager to see the EPA limit pollution.” Here’s his defense:
Pruitt, a former attorney general of Oklahoma, said through a spokesman that he does not spend any time with polluters. “I prosecute polluters. What I’m spending time with are stakeholders who care about outcomes,” he said.
It must be comforting to live in a world where the oil, gas, coal and mining industries don’t pollute the environment. But, then you have to wonder, who does?
“Stakeholders who care about outcomes,” sounds so much nicer than “polluters.” It’s truly a classic bogus narrative.
There are rumors that Pruitt may be about to be fired, not because of anything reported above, but because of an avalanche of scandals, which many in the media have presented as having nothing to do with his policy agenda. But that narrative, too, is utterly bogus.
On her April 5 show, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow presented an opposite view, focused on a trip Pruitt took to Morocco to lobby for that country to import liquid natural gas from the United States—something well outside his range of duties. The US has only one LNG exporter, Cheniere Energy, and an old Trump crony, Carl Icahn, is a major Cheniere shareholder. When Trump decided to appoint Pruitt to the EPA, he first required him to meet Icahn personally to get his OK. Yes, the trip was extravagant, costing around $40,000 for first-class airfare and accommodations for Pruitt and his unprecedented “security team” (total cost around $3 million so far), with a two-day stop in Paris and just one day in Morocco. But it’s very purpose was to do a favor for a Trump crony whom Pruitt should have been regulating as a producer in the U.S., not running sales errands for abroad. It also tied into another Pruitt scandal—his $50 per night condo room rental deal, co-owned by the wife of an energy lobbyist. You guessed it: his firm represents Cheniere Energy.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, has written to Pruitt Tuesday seeking more information. He’s looking more broadly at the vast web of connections Pruitt has with the oil and gas industries, and how this action—so far outside his job description—fits so well into that picture.
Pruitt’s expensive obsessions with first-class travel, his “security team,” his housing bargain, his $43,000 soundproof phone booth may all seem like unrelated scandals to most of the media covering him, but as Maddow’s reporting suggests—along with Whitehouse’s inquiry—there may be far more connection lurking beneath the surface than anyone has even dreamed of. The dominant narrative that these scandals aren’t policy-related may well have shielded Pruitt from far more damaging scrutiny than he’s received so far.
Environmentalists care about the environment and its human health impacts, environmental lawyers care about environmental law. Both are heavily focused on the world of facts. But Trump and Pruitt’s attacks on the environment are overwhelmingly based on narratives, meant to bury facts. Defeating their destructive impact will require a different way of thinking by all who care about protecting the environment that sustains us all.