Energy & Environment

Conservatives fear EPA chief going soft on climate science


The head of the Environmental Protection Agency is facing heavy pressure from conservatives to take on the science of climate change. 

Undoing the 2009 endangerment finding — the Obama administration’s conclusion that greenhouse gases are a threat and can be regulated — would make it easier for EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to reverse President Obama’s climate agenda. 

That’s because it would remove the legal obligation under the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon dioxide, removing a key tool that environmentalists are counting on as they try to keep Obama’s policies like the Clean Power Plan in place.

{mosads}The finding that greenhouse gases “endanger both the public health and the public welfare of current and future generations” is the lynchpin of climate policy under the Clean Air Act, and removing it could effectively gut many of EPA regulations.

But while Pruitt has expressed skepticism of the scientific consensus that greenhouse gases are the primary cause of climate change, repealing or changing the endangerment finding would be a significant lift, according to experts and supporters of climate policies, with the vast majority of scientific data working against Pruitt. 

“The science is very clear. The endangerment finding is basically unquestioned throughout the scientific community and the legal community,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). “So I think it would be a very bizarre, unproductive and destructive thing to revisit that.” 

President Trump’s executive order this week to start the process of rolling back nearly all of Obama’s climate agenda did not ask the EPA to reconsider the endangerment finding.

Sources close to EPA leadership said that early drafts of the order would have instructed the department review the finding. But Pruitt successfully pushed against that.

Those sources claimed that Pruitt, who as attorney general of Oklahoma was a frequent litigant against the Obama administration, was concerned about his political future and didn’t want to be labeled anti-science.

“They’re looking for reasons to not do it because they don’t want a fight,” a person familiar with the deliberations said, referring to Pruitt and his allies.

Breitbart News columnist James Delingpole wrote this week that Pruitt should consider resigning if he won’t repeal the endangerment finding, saying that he “is more interested in building his political career than he is taking on the Green Blob.”  

In addition, the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute filed a petition last month formally asking the EPA to launch a review, saying “since that finding was issued, evidence has continued to mount that directly contradicts it.”

The original push in the administration to strike down the endangerment finding came in part because Trump promised last year, in a questionnaire from the fossil fuel-backed American Energy Alliance (AEA), to review the finding if he were elected. 

Apart from that, Trump frequently railed against Obama’s climate policies. He called climate change a “hoax” and promised to remove barriers to fossil fuel production and use.

Pruitt has walked a fine line on climate change science. He said at his Senate confirmation hearing in January that he believes the climate is changing but that the extent to which human activity contributes to it, and what should be done about it, are “subject to continuing debate and dialogue, as well it should be.”

But on CNBC earlier this month, Pruitt said carbon dioxide is not the “primary contributor” to global warming and said that Congress should have a say over what the United States does, if anything, about climate change.

The EPA’s endangerment finding came in response to the Supreme Court’s 2007 decision in Massachusetts v. EPA. The court ruled that greenhouse gases from cars are air pollutants and said the EPA is obligated to decide whether their emissions rise to the level of requiring regulation.

The fact that Trump’s executive order didn’t mention the finding does not preclude future action on the matter.

The EPA did not return a request for comment on whether it plans to consider repealing the endangerment finding. 

Republicans in Congress are split on Pruitt’s decision to forego action on the finding for the time being.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, sponsored unsuccessful legislation to undo the finding shortly after it was issued, out of concern of the impact on fossil fuel industries like oil, which is important to Alaska’s economy. 

But she said she is bothered by the Trump administration’s plans.

“It seems to me a rational, responsible approach, given what he has in front of him,” Murkowski said of Pruitt’s agenda. “So I’m not questioning why or if he has to go back to the endangerment finding.” 

Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), a close Trump ally who served last year as an adviser to his campaign on energy policy, said he doesn’t like the finding, but he understands the need to avoid action for now. 

“It’s a little bit like healthcare. If you let perfect be the enemy of good, you sometimes don’t get anything,” Cramer said, comparing it to the recent fight over repealing and replacing ObamaCare.

“And I think the endangerment finding just would have been such a heavy lift, because legally, to unwind it would have just been so onerous. That’s not to say we shouldn’t try or continue to try over time. But it shouldn’t hold up these other, more immediate things,” he continued. 

But Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), vice chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he’d like to see the administration take on climate science.

“They ought to really take a look at the endangerment finding that the Obama administration issued when they first got in office,” he said. “I think it’s very flawed and should be, at a minimum, revisited.”

Tom Pyle, president of the AEA, agreed that the Trump administration should make it a priority.

“A lot of the hard work they’ll be doing over the next several years could easily be undone should another administration come in and have a significantly different perspective on the issue,” said Pyle, who led Trump’s transition team at the Energy Department. 

Pyle said his group doesn’t necessarily think that greenhouse gases do not cause climate change. But Congress should decide the issue, and the Clean Air Act is not the right tool, he said. 

“I think it only makes sense for the president and the administration to do these things,” Pyle said. “I don’t think the advice he’s been getting about putting it aside for now is sound.” 

Tags Jeff Merkley Lisa Murkowski

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