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Why the Biden Administration Must Improve the EPA

Donald Trump and the Environmental Destruction Agency

The Environmental Protection Agency is quite possibly the most important arm of the United States government at present. Climate change threatens the survival of life on earth. Pollution is a constantly growing problem. Species are continually going extinct at an alarming rate. The United States is one of the largest contributors to these worldwide problems. Why, then, did the Trump administration discard precedent in environmental regulation as thoroughly as it did most other precedents?

We are hopefully all aware by now of the links between big business, fossil fuels, the ravaging of the environment, and government corruption. The Koch brothers pioneered the use of “activism” as a blunt financial weapon to serve their own fossil fuels-based industrial interests, but they have plenty of company in their own billionaire class. Since the inauguration of the Reagan Consensus in the 1980s, monied interests have increasingly had a free hand in rearranging the chairs of government to suit themselves.

The billionaire class literally played its Trump card in 2016, and perhaps nowhere was this more evident than in the new administration’s handling of the EPA. Trump’s first appointed head of the agency was Scott Pruitt, a figure whose bumpy tenure ended, predictably, in scandals foreshadowed by his past in shady real estate dealings, a shell company, and monied friends. Controversies associated with Pruitt’s time at the EPA included questions relating to his travel budget, questionable expenses, misuse of staffers, reassigned staffers, and rewards to his flunkies.

Even as his administration of the EPA was falling apart, however, Pruitt persisted in rolling back decades of progress made by the agency entrusted to his care. In one week at the height of his public scandals, the EPA announced it was planning to “revise how it evaluates costs and benefits in making regulations” which “is a critical calculation in designing new regulations on everything from greenhouse gas emissions to toxic pesticides.” At the same time, the agency also decided to limit “how it establishes harm from environmental toxics,” creating a situation in which “the only harm that counts according to the EPA for many of these substances is direct contact with these hazardous chemicals, like if they fall on you. Indirect exposure through soil contamination or air pollution wouldn’t factor into the EPA’s decision of whether to restrict or ban a particular compound.”

Pruitt was ultimately ousted to be replaced by the equally unqualified Andrew Wheeler, a former lobbyist for Murray Energy Corp, “the nation’s leading underground coal mining company.” In his first year leading the EPA, Wheeler sidelined scientists, proposed to restrict the use of scientific data, gutted the coal ash rule, recommended unsafe levels of drinking water contaminants, rolled back Clean Water Act protections, suppressed an inconvenient formaldehyde report, ignored EPA scientists’ advice to ban asbestos, weakened the mercury emissions rule, slammed vehicle emission rules into reverse, rescinded the Clean Power Plan, and generally reversed decades of bipartisan protections.

Wheeler’s actions were entirely in keeping, however, with the agenda of the president who appointed him. Trump entered office promising to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, part of a broader antiregulatory agenda, and in his first days in the Oval Office proceeded to issue an executive order mandating that two environmental regulations must be rolled back for every new regulation instituted. To describe these actions as irresponsible would be a grotesque understatement. The Environmental Protection Agency was instituted by a Republican president, Richard Nixon, who alienated several of his corporate backers in the process. Trump, in other words, demonstrated less moral integrity as president than the Watergate guy.

All of which would be bad enough, but it gets worse. In its closing weeks, Trump’s EPA issued new rules specifically designed to make progress more difficult for the incoming administration. The agency would henceforth be subject to additional standards in the process of considering whether to enact regulations – unless, of course, the new guidelines can be rescinded. “The practical result of this sort of change is that the EPA would be precluded from relying on scientific papers that contained the clearest indications of public harm.”

A Clean Break (Maybe)

Is there room for hope as Democrats Joe Biden and Kamala Harris take over the White House with a narrow House majority and a narrower Senate majority? Biden has appointed Michael Regan, a North Carolina regulator, to head the EPA itself. Regan is the first black man to hold that position and has said he “believes the U.S. can reduce emissions dramatically by 2030.” Biden has also crafted the unique position of domestic climate policy chief for Gina McCarthy, who headed the EPA under Obama and who in her new position will “have a broader mandate to advance climate action across the government than just via new interpretations of the Clean Air Act.”

McCarthy has been criticized by some for mishandling the Flint water crisis and is not as popular as she could be on the left wing of the Democratic Party. In this, she resembles John Kerry, whom Biden has appointed Special Envoy for Climate. Progressives see Kerry as “long on words and short on actions” who “favors an approach to dealing with climate change that rests on commodifying and selling nature rather than preserving it as our common inheritance.” Yet Kerry, like McCarthy, also has many solid environmental accomplishments under his belt. He has been described as America’s top climate diplomat, who in 2019 created “World War Zero, an organization comprising former heads of state, policy experts, military leaders, scientists, CEOs, and celebrities—from across the political spectrum—who are dedicated to raising public awareness of the need to halve global carbon emissions by 2030 and to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.”

More optimistically, President Biden has already been active in pursuing his climate agenda. In a powerfully worded executive order issued his first day in office, Biden declared it the policy of his administration “to listen to the science; to improve public health and protect our environment; to ensure access to clean air and water; to limit exposure to dangerous chemicals and pesticides; to hold polluters accountable, including those who disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities; to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; to bolster resilience to the impacts of climate change; to restore and expand our national treasures and monuments; and to prioritize both environmental justice and the creation of the well-paying union jobs necessary to deliver on these goals.”

This executive order goes on to detail the restoration of national monuments; orders the Secretary of the Interior to place a temporary moratorium on implementation of the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program; and revokes, among other things, Donald Trump’s March 2019 Permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Where do we go from here?

With all this in mind, I believe there is room for hope. For the moment, however, it remains just a hope that the Biden administration will be able to decisively set America on a path to a greener future with sufficient permanence that Republicans will not be able to reverse course as effectively as they did under Trump. The incoming administration must place all the pressure it can muster on Congress to expand the EPA’s budget. Federal agencies and their regulations, which have the rule of law in the United States, are of no use if the agencies in question cannot enforce those regulations.

Likewise, instituting the Green New Deal must be a top priority for the new government. A crucial component must be to pass the electoral reforms already passed twice by Nancy Pelosi’s House but initially crushed by Mitch McConnell’s intransigence. The H.R.1 For the People Act passed in the House of Representatives a second time on Wednesday March 3, 2021, and could potentially pass in the Senate now that Democrats control that chamber.

H.R.1 states as its purpose “To expand Americans’ access to the ballot box, reduce the influence of big money in politics, strengthen ethics rules for public servants, and implement other anti-corruption measures for the purpose of fortifying our democracy, and for other purposes.” Among other things, H.R.1 is a response to decades of Republicans’ successful efforts to suppress voter turnout. If passed, it will create a set of national voter registration and mail-in voting standards; nonpartisan redistricting commissions; big changes in campaign finance law; new ethics rules for public servants; and a requirement that presidential candidates disclose their tax returns.

It is no mystery why Republicans have fought so long to suppress the votes of minorities. They have fought environmental and economic regulations for the same reasons – to safeguard their own money and power. Environmental issues threaten the socially marginalized first and foremost, though extinction ultimately threatens humanity equally. Democracy in its truest sense is our surest safeguard against this outcome.

Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in Culture and Current Events, Non-Fiction, Opinion Piece

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