Ex-chiefs criticize Trump rollbacks (EE News)

Former EPA administrators gathered today to discuss the future of the agency and challenges ahead.

Speaking at a conference centered on the agency held at the American University Washington College of Law, past EPA chiefs from Democratic and Republican administrations praised the agency that has weathered proposed budget cuts by President Trump and hundreds of staff members leaving in recent years.

Both Carol Browner, who served as EPA administrator under President Clinton, and Gina McCarthy, who led the agency during President Obama's second term, emphasized that the next election would be pivotal for EPA and its future. If a Democrat defeats Trump in 2020, they said, the next president should target various environmental rollbacks that have moved forward under the current administration.

Browner said the next EPA administrator should turn back the agency's "secret science" proposal, which would require EPA to use only publicly available data to write its regulations. The Clinton-era EPA chief said that would undercut previous rules that used public health studies centered on confidential data.

"It is fundamentally limiting the amount of science that EPA can rely on. EPA should have more, not less, science," Browner told attendees of the conference, which was put together with help from the EPA Alumni Association and the Environmental Law Institute.

McCarthy blasted other changes to EPA's use of science, including the ban on EPA grantees serving on advisory boards. She added that the Trump EPA's proposed rules have not been finalized and what has been finalized will be litigated, and she expects the administration will lose in court.

"The thing that gives me the greatest pleasure is to read their proposed rules, because in one word they suck," McCarthy said.

"They are kind of on their own, making shit up," she added to laughs. "Sorry, I shouldn't say words like that."

William Reilly, who served as EPA administrator under President George H.W. Bush, also noted how the Trump administration pulled back on regulations dealing with methane and mercury, seemingly because those were achievements by Obama.

"These are not easy to read on a rational, individual basis," Reilly said.

McCarthy also said the next administration needs to rebuild EPA. Its workforce has been in decline under Trump.

"If you have any leverage at all, get the agency stronger as a foundation," McCarthy said.

A call to action on climate change

All three former administrators sitting on today's panel agreed climate change will be a major cause for EPA under the next administration. Browner stressed that voters should take into account how candidates treat climate change.

"We should not give people a pass on any of this," Browner said. "It is a science issue, it is a moral issue and it is an ethical issue."

McCarthy said the fight on climate change will need Republican support and noted even members of the House Freedom Caucus would call the agency for help on environmental problems in their congressional districts.

"They didn't call Ghostbusters. They called EPA," McCarthy said.

Asked what made them optimistic about EPA's future, McCarthy said young people, while Browner modified that sentiment to say young voters. Reilly said the agency will be the federal government's leading agency to respond to climate change and overcome it as it has with other environmental challenges.

"It has been done before. It can be done again," Reilly said, which should help win new support for EPA.

Bill Ruckelshaus, EPA's first administrator under President Nixon, who later returned to lead the agency under President Reagan, also gave a video message to the conference today. He recalled how pollution plagued the country before EPA was created and how the environment has improved.

"It's a lot better, and it's a lot better because this agency existed," he said.

Ruckelshaus also discussed how government regulation now engenders more opposition, with EPA as a good example of that. He said the agency needs to explain its mission clearly to the public.

"We're not going to succeed unless we're trusted, unless people believe that we are honestly trying to assess what the threat is to the environment or to public health," Ruckelshaus said.

He also urged the conference's attendees to combat climate change.

"Our failure to do something about it today dooms us in the future," Ruckelshaus said. "We simply got to step up and do something about it. We used to be leaders."

Other challenges ahead

Other former administrators also noted how EPA needs support today. In a speech this morning to discuss the conference's goals, Reilly acknowledged times have changed since he was last head of the agency.

"The climate has changed a great deal since certainly I was in office and many of you were in office. I think practically one of the challenges today is going to keep you from being so mad that you can't look out to the future and ask the questions that will be relevant after the present time passes, and it will," he said.

Reilly spoke about how EPA remains one of the few avenues to combat climate change, which the Trump administration has downplayed.

He warned attendees about a carbon tax proposal from several prominent Republicans, including former Secretaries of State Jim Baker and George Shultz. Reilly said part of that proposal would have EPA phase out its regulations on carbon emissions and protect companies responsible for those emissions from liability.

"I think this is not a good sign in my own view since I mentioned that it's EPA and the courts are uniquely likely as anyone is to address the problem of climate change seriously with laws and regulations that bite," Reilly said, adding that "there is a tremendous impulse at work there to deregulate."

The agency has been at the forefront at Trump's push to roll back regulations across the federal government. It has also been targeted by proposed budget cuts, buyouts and reorganizations under the current administration.

Reilly lamented how EPA has not received more public backing.

"There is a tolerance in the country for proposing to reduce EPA's budget by more than a third and staffing by as much that surprises me," Reilly said.

While Trump has proposed to slash EPA's funds, Congress has rejected those cuts and kept level funding for the agency.

Rather, Reilly said EPA should be celebrated for its accomplishments.

"I don't know of an agency that can point to more indisputable successes, progress and achievements that you can breathe, that you can drink, that you can touch with your hands than the Environmental Protection Agency," he said.

Twitter: @KevinBogardus Email: kbogardus@eenews.net

William Reilly