It seems that every week this year the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been in the news about something, and not much of it has been good. As the agency in charge of protecting things people need to live, like air and water, it’s generally a good idea to keep tabs on what the EPA is up to and whether or not it’s fulfilling it’s mandate. To that end, here is a brief rundown of what’s been going on at the EPA for the past month.
The EPA kicked off April with an announcement by Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt that they would be rolling back the vehicle emissions standards set in place under Obama.
Later that week New York State along with fourteen other states and the City of Chicago sued the EPA over the continued lack of regulations for methane emissions by current oil and gas operations. The lawsuit alleges that the failure to issues the regulations is a violation of the agency’s legal obligations under the Clean Air Act.
In Mid April Congress announced that they would be opening one more investigation on Pruitt. That adds to the 10 investigations of Pruitt that are already underway involving his spending, use of private and military flights, meeting with industry groups, security, and other practices.
On April 24th Pruitt announced a proposed a new rule that would require that all the science, including data and models, used by the EPA to make decisions be made publically available. Because of privacy issues around personal medical information and the way medical studies are frequently conducted, enacting this rule would mean the EPA could no longer use a number of scientific medical studies about how things like how pesticides and pollution effect people.
About a week later the EPA issued a waiver exempting an Oklahoma oil refinery from industry biofuel requirements. The waiver was issued based on “financial hardship” considerations in spite of the fact that the refinery is owned by billionaire Carl Icahn, who is a former advisor to President Trump.
The agency followed this up on May 1st by exempting most of Wisconsin from regulations intended to reduce smog.
Finally, also on May 1st, California and 16 other states filed suit against the EPA over the abovementioned plan to revoke auto emissions standards, and it’s potential to preempt state’s ability to set their own tougher standards.
The above timeline only includes the last few weeks but it’s indicative of how the agency has been operating since Pruitt was appointed as its head. Basically he has been doing what Trump supporters hoped and others feared: making the agency ineffective from the inside and disregarding environmental concerns in favor of business interests.
Knowing what is going on at the EPA lately has been complicated lately, but unfortunately knowing what to do about this can be even more complicated. Because the agency is not run directly by elected officials and because their rules and regulations are not legislation passed by elected officials, average Americans generally only have two avenues to impact the operations of the EPA. One is to submit comments when the agency opens public comment periods on proposed rule changes. The other is to wait for elections and vote for candidates who will install EPA leadership that believes in protecting the environment and the science behind how to do that.
When deciding how to prioritize treatment of the environment compared with other political considerations it’s worth taking a moment to understand why environmental protection is a thing and why the EPA exists. Most people who take action to protect the environment do so not out of some altruistic philosophy about the inherent value of the natural world, they protect the environment because if humans fail to maintain the natural world in a way that allows people to live in it, we will all die.