The Long War on the EPA

Trump’s attempts to gut environmental protections will be devastating for the planet. But they’re far from unprecedented.

The US National Archives

“The present EPA with its shredders, improper contacts with the regulated community, conflicts of interest, and the like appears to be substantially more  venal [than other federal agencies].”

This effectively sums up the state of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) less than two weeks into the presidency of Donald Trump. But it was written thirty-four years ago.

For those who don’t have copies of the Atlanta Constitution sitting around, this quote comes from a 1982 editorial about Reagan’s EPA. Unfortunately, not much has changed today.

Since being elected, Donald Trump has launched what some call an unprecedented attack on the environment and the agency tasked with protecting it. He’s appointed hard-right conservatives and members of regulated industries to shape the EPA; continued to deny the urgency of climate change and operated in accordance with that belief; pledged to open protected lands and other sensitive ecosystems to mining and drilling; and is set to starve the EPA of funding and slash its workforce by as much as half, just to name a few of his key policies.

Trump appears to be taking right-wing anti-environmentalism to new extremes. Just yesterday, the man behind Trump’s EPA transition told the Guardian that Trump’s ultimate goal was the wholesale abolition of the EPA via incremental dismantlement, bit by bit over time.

It’s certainly terrifying.

But is it unprecedented?

The narrative surrounding Trump’s environmental policies follows the contours of the general narrative around his presidency, painting him as a singular threat to politics as usual who has veered sharply away from accepted norms — including when it comes to the environment. Indeed, a large part of Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful campaign involved trying to “abnormalize” Trump, painting him as far outside even today’s historically extreme Republican Party.

To be sure, Trump veers away from the “mainstream” right on many topics — his promise (now fulfilled) to ban Muslims being the operative example, even if many Republicans have walked back their opposition to this policy.

But when it comes to environmental policy, Trump isn’t the exception. He’s the rule.

All Roads Lead to Reagan

As with much of twenty-first century conservatism, you can find the roots of Trump’s environmental approach in Ronald Reagan.

Reagan entered office with a never-before-seen hostility toward not just environmental regulations but the environment itself, based in equally unprecedented ignorance.

While running for governor of California, he defended opening the state’s centuries-old redwood trees for logging because “a tree is a tree, how many more do you need to look at?” Later, as president, he claimed that “trees cause more pollution than automobiles do” and, in an act of historic pettiness, removed the solar panels Jimmy Carter had installed on the White House.

Like Trump, Reagan’s platform explicitly opposed environmental regulations. He assailed the Clean Air Act and claimed without evidence that it and the EPA had raised prices, “helped force factories to shut down and cost workers their jobs.”

He even declared that “air pollution has been substantially controlled,” which he then repeatedly denied saying.

He promised to eliminate “thousands of unnecessary regulations,” complained about “environmental extremists,” and said that “if [EPA officials] had their way, you and I would have to live in rabbits’ holes and bird’s nests.”

Two things shaped Reagan’s policy. One was the conservative Heritage Foundation, whose 1,100-page Mandate for Leadership Reagan handed out to staff members at his first cabinet meeting and used as the policy blueprint for his administration. (The Trump administration is also relying on the think tank’s 2017 version as the basis for gutting the EPA and other agencies.) The Mandate warned that “regulatory procedures must be reformed to expedite decision making” and that “environmental protection must not become a cover for a ‘no-growth’ policy and a shrinking economy.”

The other influence was James G. Watt, then president of the Mountain States Legal Fund, a conservative group that fought environmental regulations. Joseph Coors, the far-right heir to the the brewing company of the same name and funder of numerous right-wing causes, and Senator Paul Laxalt recommended Watt. All three belonged to the Sagebrush Rebellion, a Western movement aimed at forcing the federal government to relinquish ownership of hundreds of millions of acres of public land.

Watt was an ideological warrior. He told Human Events in 1982 that conservatives represented the real conservationist movement and that “the liberal has prostituted the word in an effort to achieve his political objectives.” The year before, he said: “I never use the words Democrats and Republicans. It’s liberals and Americans.”

As Michael Kraft and Norman J. Vig wrote at the time, the Reagan administration’s environmental policy reversed popular assumptions about the weak presidency, and showed “how an incoming presidential administration strongly committed to reversing previous policies can achieve systemic, nonincremental policy change.”

Its playbook for doing so will sound familiar for anyone following recent events. The administration asked a Heritage Foundation employee (and later EPA official) to draw up “pro and con assessments” of existing and prospective EPA personnel, recruited officials from the industries they were meant to regulate — the EPA’s general counsel had worked for Exxon for twelve years, for instance — and made steep budget cuts to the EPA to undermine its programs. Between 1979 and 1984, the agency’s budget was slashed by 45 percent even as its responsibilities increased, hamstringing even the most committed agency hires.

The hires weren’t always committed, however. Watt became secretary of the interior, promising national park concessionaires that he would reverse “fifty years of bad government” and that “if a personality is giving you a problem . . . we’re going to get rid of the problem or the personality, whichever is fastest.” He fired other presidents’ appointees and openly stated that “we will use the budget system to be the excuse to make major policy decisions.”

As head of the EPA, Reagan appointed Anne Gorsuch, a Watt protégé (and mother of Trump’s Supreme Court pick Neil Gorsuch) who had experience in neither management, environmental policy, nor Washington. Rather than protecting the environment, she believed her task was to carry out the administration’s deregulatory goals and make the agency more efficient and business-friendly.

The triumvirate of Reagan, Gorsuch, and Watt took a hacksaw to environmental regulations. They slashed Carter’s renewable energy programs. They slowed Superfund payments, which were supposed to clean up hazardous waste. They delayed all attempts to deal with acid rain, claiming that it wasn’t clear if sulfur dioxide really caused the phenomenon. Enforcement cases filed to EPA headquarters plummeted.

The administration went about this in ways that paralleled some of the Trump administration’s current actions. Much as the Trump administration has put EPA scientists and climate change workers in its crosshairs, Gorsuch reduced the agency’s research staff and budget.

Meanwhile, similar to Trump’s surprise executive orders, Watt abruptly revealed a plan to dismantle strip-mining regulations without consulting important federal and state officials.

Under Gorsuch, the EPA went from “one of the most efficient and capable agencies” to one of the least effective, one critic charged. When one senior official resigned, he left a farewell note:

There is a critical shortage of filing cabinets; access to our unlighted, unheated building on weekends is always difficult and often impossible . . . The quality and quantity of the work product has begun to reflect the fatigue and low morale of the staff.

The Reagan administration did lasting damage to the environment. A Democrat-dominated Congress, however, tempered the executive branch, fighting off a number of its more alarming proposals with help from Republicans crossing the aisle at a time when the party was less rigid.

When Reagan vetoed the reauthorization of the Clean Water Act in 1987, Congress overrode it. Congressional Democrats also fought back industry attempts to rewrite the Clean Air Act, prevented Watt from opening up wilderness areas to fossil-fuel drilling, and blocked Reagan’s plan to lease the entirety of the 1.4-million-acre outer continental shelf — the country’s coastline, essentially — for oil drilling. Under Trump, however, environmentalists won’t have a Democrat-heavy Congress to stem the worst proposals from the Right.

What ultimately cost Watt and Gorsuch their jobs wasn’t their extreme positions, but unrelated scandals. Watt’s intransigence and outspokenness frequently got him into trouble: he was nearly held in contempt of Congress for withholding subpoenaed documents, closed a historic mansion in Arlington Cemetery to throw a private cocktail party and then charged the event to the Parks Service, and threatened that the US-Israel relationship could be undermined if “the liberals of the Jewish community join with the other liberals of this nation to oppose” energy exploration.

A joke finally triggered his departure. In 1983, he told listeners about his coal advisory commission: “I have a black, I have a woman, two Jews, and a cripple.” In the ensuing fervor, he resigned.

Gorsuch had evacuated her position earlier the same year when she became the first-ever cabinet-level appointee to be cited for contempt of Congress. A House committee investigating the Superfund’s workings voted for the charge after Gorsuch refused — at Reagan’s direction — to hand over subpoenaed documents. Fifty-five Republicans joined 204 Democrats in support of the resolution.

Again, we will likely see some parallels in the present. The Trump administration seems equally, if not more, scandal-prone than Reagan’s, as the half-baked Muslim-ban order has demonstrated. Although the administration appears to hold public opinion in contempt, this weekend’s mass protests do seem to have played a role in the administration’s decision to rein in its immigration order.

And Reagan’s anti-environmental campaign eventually fostered a massive uptick in environmentalist mobilization at the time. Such mobilization will likely intensify when it involves the much more widely disliked President Trump.

Changing Tack

Watt’s and Gorsuch’s departures didn’t occasion a sea change in the Reagan administration’s policies, however — only a change in strategy. This next stage may preview where the Trump administration will go after what is shaping up to be an initial round of highly public, controversial fights over environmental policy.

Instead of replacing Watt and Gorsuch with equally polarizing ideologues, Reagan went moderate. William Ruckelshaus, the agency’s first head, replaced Gorsuch and helped revive the agency’s credibility and morale.

Neocon William Clark, who knew little about the environment, replaced Watt. He immediately tried to toe a softer, more conciliatory line and fired three of Watt’s top underlings. Of course, as the Wilderness Society’s director observed, “after Watt it’s impossible not to look reasonable.”

At the same time, watching disapproving opinion polls, the administration began courting environmentalists and launched what the Washington Post called “an extensive public relations drive to sell its environmental policies to the electorate and convey an image of moderation.” In his 1984 State of the Union speech, Reagan promised to reauthorize the soon-to-expire Superfund law.

The administration thus kept on the same path forward while projecting a moderate image to win the public over. Clark made a few cosmetic changes to Reagan’s plan to lease the coastline to oil companies, slightly reducing its scale and adding more public transparency, but the National Resources Defense Council charged that he “essentially reaffirmed the Watt program.”

Meanwhile one prominent environmentalist charged Ruckelshaus with acting “as a front man for Ronald Reagan’s disastrous environmental policies.” Rolling Stone said that he “restored a patina of gentility to an office that had become sullied,” but that “little . . . changed” in his first year.

Apparently facing too much opposition from within the administration, Ruckelshaus further delayed action on acid rain and pollution laws. The continued budget cuts also put Ruckelshaus in a straightjacket. He reportedly personally appealed to Reagan to spare EPA funding before ultimately resigning less than two years after taking the position.

It remains to be seen if the Trump administration has the discipline or political skill to follow Reagan’s example and moderate its image in order to push through a more radical agenda. But it’s a possibility environmentalists should plan for.

Come 1984, Marion Edey — the founder and then director of the League of Conservation Voters — suggested to the Wall Street Journal that she missed James Watt because it was easier to keep voters interested in the environment when seemingly intemperate radicals were attacking it. “We can no longer expect the administration to provide ammunition for us,” she said.

Thanks to a disgruntled populace and a strong congressional opposition, eight years of Reagan did not bring about environmentalists’ worst-case scenarios. But as the president of the Wilderness Society said in 1989, it represented eight “years of lost time that cannot be made up and where a lot of damage was done that may not be reparable.” We have much less time today.

The Right Heir

George W. Bush’s presidency, which had close ideological and personnel ties to Reagan, followed closely in his predecessor’s footsteps.

Bush was similarly clueless regarding the environment. He repeatedly called nuclear power a “renewable” energy source and once claimed there were “250 million years of coal” left. His gubernatorial record on the environment was dismal, with Texas leading the nation in smog and toxic-chemical emissions.

Upon winning the presidency, Bush staffed key environmental posts with lobbyists and lawyers working for regulated industries: the EPA’s deputy administrator had been a Monsanto lobbyist, the Interior Department’s number two worked for the fossil-fuel industry, and one of the department’s envoys to Alaska had led the charge for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — which Trump and the GOP are now trying to allow. The administration’s interior secretary lobbied for a company that spent much of its history promoting and spreading the use of toxic lead paint.

Like Trump’s promise to exit from the Paris climate deal, Bush quickly killed the Kyoto Protocol, which aimed to curb global greenhouse gas emissions. And, similar to the Trump administration’s plans to reform “the agency’s use of science,” the Bush administration regularly edited science reports on climate change.

The rest of the Bush administration’s environmental policies, which you can read if you’re feeling sadomasochistic, will sound eerily familiar: EPA budget cuts, gutting the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, slashing the Superfund program, opening up wilderness to logging, mining, and drilling, and trying to redefine “waters of the United States” to exclude most rivers, lakes, and streams. Indeed, Trump promised on the campaign trail to eliminate the Obama administration’s 2015 rule, which expanded this definition.

In 2008, the House global warming committee wrote that “the first 100 days of the Bush administration initiated perhaps the worst period of environmental deregulation in American history.” It was all the more damaging because Bush’s appointees had more political savvy than Reagan’s, allowing them to avoid controversy while advancing more radical, far-reaching measures.

And while Trump’s goal to demolish the EPA certainly sounds (and is) extreme, it’s very much in the mainstream of the Republican Party over the last few years. One of the first things Republicans did upon their 2010 “shellacking” of the Democrats was make plans to dramatically defund the agency (as well as the Interior Department) in the hopes that it would “go the way of the dinosaurs that became fossil fuels.” A whole host of GOP candidates advocated gutting or abolishing the agency in 2011, from Newt Gingrich to the wildly popular Ron Paul.

Meanwhile, between 2011 and 2012, legislation to dismantle the Clean Air Act was voted on ninety-five times. Reagan’s obsession never left the party.

Beyond Trump

Rather than serving as a recipe for despair, this should serve as an important lesson: limiting the scope of our activism to Trump and Trump alone — loathsome as he is — will lead to failure. Far from an aberration, the Trump administration continues the Bush and Reagan administrations’ environmental policies, even as some on the Right (and the Left) pine for the supposedly more sensible policies of previous “mainstream” Republican presidents and candidates.

Whether Trump resigns, is impeached, or voted out, the next GOP administration will still rely on think tanks like Heritage, will likely hire from within regulated industries, and will continue a militant commitment to rolling back environmental regulations. Unlike Trump and Reagan, they may not always provide the necessary “ammunition” to awaken public outrage. The Left should plan accordingly.