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Is the EPA a Creature of Republican Environmentalism?

December 15, 2017

Few remember (and perhaps many simply do not want to know) that the EPA was created by a Republican president nearly a half-century ago. Would you believe: Richard M. Nixon?

By way of history, during the late 1950’s and throughout the 1960’s there was increasing public concern about environmental degradation. Such alarm was intensified by the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s phenomenal best-seller Silent Spring, which detailed (and many would say exaggerated) the detrimental ecological and health effects of DDT and other pesticides.

Congress reacted by holding hearings about what should be the legal and regulatory response to the public’s concern, spawning a number of different bills that eventually coalesced into the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), which President Nixon signed into law on New Year’s Day, 1970.

Council on Environmental Quality

NEPA was intended to establish a “Council on Environmental Quality” in the Executive Office of the President. It would set national environmental policy as well as require an annual “environmental report” to be filed for all federal actions deemed to affect the environment: what we now call an “environmental impact statement.”

If this sounds like a formula for confusion, Nixon apparently thought so too, and so that next July proposed an “executive reorganization” that would consolidate (under one organization) the myriad of environmental responsibilities co-opted by the federal government. It was to be called the “Environmental Protection Agency,” aka the “EPA.”

Both the House and the Senate approved the Nixon proposal.

Administrator of the EPA

The EPA administrator is nominated by the President and must be confirmed by the Senate. The first was William Ruckelshaus. There have been 19 permanent or acting administrators since 1970. Seven have been women. (Ruckelshaus served two nonconsecutive terms: 1970-73 and 1983-85.)

Interestingly enough, the EPA administrator is not an official member of the president’s Cabinet. However, he or she is customarily given cabinet rank and sits with the president, vice president, and the 15 traditional Cabinet secretaries.

There has been a movement since the mid-1980s to make the EPA administrator’s position a Cabinet rank. Thus, there would be 16 Cabinet positions, and the EPA “Secretary” would be something akin to the “Minister of the Environment” in European countries and elsewhere.

Scott Pruitt

Undoubtedly, the current EPA administrator is the most controversial in the history of the EPA. Republican presidents tend to nominate centrists to the EPA position [such as Christie Whitman (2001-03)] or unabashed conservatives [such as Anne Gorsuch (1981-830)]. Pruitt is really neither.

Per an interview he gave shortly after him nomination, Pruitt sees his mission—and that of the EPA—as working cooperatively with the states to improve water and air quality. He claims that his goal is neither to expand nor reduce regulation. He said:

There is no reason why EPA’s role should ebb or flow based on a particular administration, or a particular administrator. Agencies exist to administer the law. Congress passes statutes and those statutes are very clear on the job EPA has to do. We’re going to do that job.” 

“We’ve made extraordinary progress on the environment over the decades (but) there is real work to be done. (For example) under current measurements, some 40 percent of the country is still in nonattainment.” In regards to hazardous waste management: “We’ve got 1,300 Superfund sites and some of them have been on the list for more than three decades.”

Nonetheless, many environmentalists regard Pruitt as a shill for energy producers and sellers: someone who is more interested in gutting the agency he leads rather than administering the environmental laws and regulations it is intended to oversee.

Much of this angst centers on Pruitt’s ideological commitment to states’ rights and statutory law, which is in stark contrast to EPA policy under the Obama administration.

For example, the EPA imposed five federal air-quality implementation plans on states during the combined terms of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. It imposed 56 during the Mr. Obama administration.

In most cases these mandatory plans were not the products of laws or statutes. They were effectively administrative fiats, and as Attorney General for Oklahoma, Pruitt sued the EPA 14 times in response to them.

To understate the case: this is a peculiar history for the man who would eventually run the EPA. Add it to his voiced opinion that climate change is not a product of human activity, and it is little wonder that his tenure is anathematic to pro-regulation environmentalists and climate-change activists.

In sum, for better or worse depending on your political predilections, Pruitt is vested in a rebalance of power between the federal government and the states when it comes to environmental regulation and—by extension—the mandates that surround hazardous waste management.

Such an affinity for states’ rights (as opposed to stark federalism) is a Republican hallmark—at least ostensibly. You might say it’s a new dawn for the EPA. But it’s not necessarily a new moment in history. Richard Nixon would tell you that—if he were still with us.

Disposal of hazardous waste doesn’t have to be painful.