EPA chief, pushing for second Trump term, outlines vision for agency

EPA chief, pushing for second Trump term, outlines vision for agency
© Bonnie Cash

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerOVERNIGHT ENERGY: California seeks to sell only electric cars by 2035 | EPA threatens to close New York City office after Trump threats to 'anarchist' cities | House energy package sparks criticism from left and right EPA threatens to close New York City office after Trump threats to 'anarchist' cities The conservative case for phasing out hydrofluorocarbons MORE laid out what a second term would look like for the agency under President TrumpDonald John TrumpSteele Dossier sub-source was subject of FBI counterintelligence probe Pelosi slams Trump executive order on pre-existing conditions: It 'isn't worth the paper it's signed on' Trump 'no longer angry' at Romney because of Supreme Court stance MORE Thursday, recounting regulations largely viewed as rollbacks by critics in a speech celebrating the agency’s 50th anniversary.

“While the focus of the next 50 years should not be like the last 50, it should be informed by it,” Wheeler said in a speech from the Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, Calif., an homage to the president that founded the EPA.

Wheeler promised to continue "President Trump’s second term" with a rule that would limit consideration of some scientific research as well as another that would change the way the agency evaluates how its policies effect climate change.

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He also said the EPA needs to center its efforts on achieving environmental justice for communities overburdened by pollution — a less common talking point for an agency often focused on removing regulatory barriers.

“I believe that by focusing EPA toward communities in the coming years, our agency can change the future for people living in this country who have been left behind simply for living in polluted places,” he said.

Wheeler's speech stands in contrast to the ongoing criticism from former EPA employees, environmental groups and advocates who claim that the EPA is not fulfilling its duties. 

A group of former EPA administrators that have served under both Republican and Democratic administrations has repeatedly sounded the alarm that the agency is abandoning its mission under the Trump administration.

And the agency has been regularly sued by environmental groups who have often found success in court.

“Based on their own record and the Trump EPA’s lack of any positive agenda to reduce air and water pollution, the Trump EPA is easily the worst in the 50 year history of EPA,” said John Walke, a senior adviser to NRDC Action Fund, the political arm of the Natural Resources Defense Council. 

“They have rolled back or tried to roll back much of the Obama EPA record but have run into a buzzsaw in the courts,” he added. 

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Since 2017, the Trump administration has replaced the Obama-era Clean Power Plan regulations with a rule that reduced the regulatory burdens on coal-fired power plants. It significantly cut the mileage and emissions standards required of U.S. automakers. And it has eliminated methane requirements for oil and gas producers — a move largely opposed by the industry.

Beyond those greenhouse gas rollbacks, it has declined to enact more stringent standards for smog and soot — “making the Trump administration the first in EPA history to never strengthen any health standards for air pollution,” Walke said — and limited the reach of the federal government to protect water.

It has also worked to implement a controversial rule that critics say could limit consideration of landmark public health studies by prioritizing research only if it makes its underlying data public.

Wheeler said finishing that rule would be a priority in a potential second Trump term.

“The American public has a right to know the scientific justification behind a regulation. This will bring much needed sunlight into our regulatory process,” he said.

The regulation Wheeler hopes to finalize has been near universally opposed by the scientific community who say peer review to evaluate a study’s methods and conclusions are much more valuable than raw data that could contain personal and health information or confidential business data.  

“It is by its very terms designed to handcuff EPA to prohibit consideration of the best quality science that would result in stronger protections for Americans and our environment,” Walke said.

“I can't think of agency rulemaking in EPA’s 50 years of rulemaking history that was so obviously designed to prohibit future safeguards through censorship of science.”

Wheeler also wants to focus on enacting new cost-benefit analysis standards into a variety of different major environmental regulations. The standards could block future administrations from securing updates to a variety of different rules by making it harder to count the societal benefits of fighting climate change.

Wheeler wants to insert both the science rule and the cost-benefit rules statute by statute, which would force a future administration to abide by them for a host of future air and water regulations.

The EPA’s Superfund program, which helps clean up toxic waste, was frequently mentioned during Wheeler's speech in nods to ways the agency can help communities facing large amounts of pollution.

“EPA has allowed litigation and bureaucracy to dictate the pace of Superfund projects, instead of focusing on improving the environmental indicators and moving sites to completion,” Wheeler said.

But again, critics say the messaging doesn’t align with the agency’s efforts.

“The actions over the last four years by Trump’s EPA has put lives in all communities at risk but especially our most vulnerable communities. Their decisions to weaken and rollback basic air and water protections increase chronic medical conditions, expand sacrifice zones across our country, increase susceptibility to Covid-19 send a clear message that the lives of Black, Brown and Indigenous lives have little value to the current administration,” Mustafa Santiago Ali, the former assistant associate administrator for environmental justice of EPA said in a statement.

Wheeler’s speech, though billed by the agency as an opportunity to “detail EPA priorities for the Trump Administration's second term,” steered clear of much of the direct political speech that has landed other officials and agencies in hot water. 

But he did take a few shots at Democratic lawmakers, accusing New York Gov. Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoOvernight Health Care: Trump signs largely symbolic pre-existing conditions order amid lawsuit | White House puts off action on surprise medical bills | Rising coronavirus cases spark fears of harsh winter NY health officials to review any vaccine approved by Trump Americans splurging on Halloween candy MORE (D) of making poor energy choices “in the name of climate change” and, though he did not mention California Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomOVERNIGHT ENERGY: California seeks to sell only electric cars by 2035 | EPA threatens to close New York City office after Trump threats to 'anarchist' cities | House energy package sparks criticism from left and right California seeks to sell only electric cars by 2035 EPA head questions connection of climate change to natural disasters MORE (D) by name, accused the state of having “many examples of poor environmental outcomes.”

Just a few moments later though, he stressed the need for states to participate in regulating the environment.

“For environmental policy to work nationally, the federal government and states must work together as partners, not as adversaries,” he said.