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On July 5th, 2018, news broke that EPA’s (now former) head, Scott Pruitt, resigned from his post. Weeks later, the direct cause of Pruitt’s resignation is still being debated. In fact, it seems unlikely that there are less than a handful of reasons Pruitt resigned from his post, as Pruitt himself listed a series of “unrelenting attacks on me personally” as but one of the reasons for his stepping down in his own resignation letter. Pruitt’s tenure heading the EPA was one fraught with numerous scandals and ethics investigations which are still being conducted. While many opposed to Pruitt, his conduct as head of EPA, and the current administration in general hailed his resignation as a step forward, the ripple effect has yet to be fully felt in force.
The most prominent questions following Pruitt’s resignation from EPA stands bold and clear, however; what does this mean for the future of the EPA and the environment in the United States?
Andrew R. Wheeler addresses the United States Senate.
In the meantime, Pruitt’s position will be filled by now-acting director of the EPA, Andrew Wheeler. Despite his appointment as acting head of the EPA as Pruitt’s then-deputy chief of the EPA, Wheeler has expressed no interest in replacing Pruitt as the EPA’s front man. Rather, Wheeler is regarded in Washington as a “by-the-book” legal expert whose history lobbying for coal companies (most recently Murray Energy) has likewise drawn criticism from opponents of Pruitt and the current Presidential administration who have advocated for rollbacks on Obama-era policies regarding cleaner water and air.
From a legislative and legal perspective, Wheeler is likely to continue with the current administration’s agenda of policy rollbacks, using his professional expertise and career-long experience in Washington to do so. Despite criticism, Wheeler is regarded as one of the most tenured environmental policy experts in the United States. At Wheeler’s confirmation hearing last November, Senator Dave Carper of Delaware was quoted as saying, “Mr. Wheeler was someone with whom we didn’t always agree on each and every policy, but he did prove to be one with whom we were able to work together on policies that we did agree on.”
What remains unclear is how many of Pruitt’s environmental policy rollbacks will withstand ongoing administrative changes. Pruitt’s haste in rollbacks during his time at EPA failed to follow certain procedures, causing courts to block no less than six of his policy changes.
Pruitt’s departure also marks the thirty-fourth (34th) member of President Trump’s administration to either resign or be fired from his position.
Trump’s staff turnover is on track to surpass Ronald Reagan’s over a 4-year term
Despite political partisanship, push-back, and criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike of the current administration and its rollback policies, it is paramount to note that a conservative and/or Republican administrator of the EPA is not synonymous with adversity to environmental protection.
In 1983, then-President Ronald Reagan brought back in the EPA’s first administrator, William Ruckelshaus, to head the agency after then-administrator Anne Gorsuch was forced out, “due to scandals.” Reagan’s reasoning for this was to restore the public’s trust in EPA as Ruckelshaus had launched the agency’s first environmental protection legislative measures to phase out the production and use of asbestos and lead additives in gasoline. Were President Trump to execute something similar would be a welcome shock given his outward distaste of the EPA in the past opting to instead vocalize his support for the fossil fuel industry. Trump has stated in the past that many lost jobs and a decline in the use of fossil fuels were the results of newer legislation such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Power Plan.
This is simply not the case. These job losses and decline in fossil fuels were not a direct result of any legislative measure and were rather the result of much larger, global changes to industry and awareness to the importance of protecting human and environmental health.
The top 5 contributors to air pollution in the US have grown since 1970, while pollution emissions have decreased 73%
In fact, according to EPA’s own records, air emissions in the US decreased 73% from 1970 (when the Clean Air Act was passed) through 2013, despite population boom, increased nationwide energy consumption, and higher numbers of cars driving more miles. Industries such as fossil fuel production and consumption slowly fizzled out for a reason: widespread human need for cleaner air to breathe and water to drink bred innovation for the creation of cleaner, greener technologies which eventually aided in the passing of legislation to abet said technologies and innovations. The United States was not alone in this – far from it. Air pollution in China became so bad during the 20th-century and early 21st-century that the country invested over $120 billion into developing clean energy alternatives in 2017 alone.
Smog and air pollution in China from fossil fuels and manufacturing contributes to thousands of deaths each year.
With a population reaching upwards of 2 billion people, smog and air pollution in China has become so devastating that it leads to thousands of pollution-related deaths each year. This is not a sustainable way to maintain living conditions for any country or any population, and the Chinese government – recognizing the root of the problem – has invested in a solution: a solution which is the foundation of innovation and engagement with a sustainable future.
While the United States’ population is a percentage of China’s and contains less under-utilized land space which could house massive solar or wind farms, the global shift towards sustainable and clean energy, air, and water has been in the making for decades. If the US is to maintain its stance as a global leader in these areas the next EPA administrator could make or break that mark.
At this point, unfortunately, there are many aspects of the EPA’s future which will remain unclear for some time – that is, until he appoints a replacement for the agency’s acting director, Andrew Wheeler. One thing is clear, however; it is not impossible for a Republican candidate to be appointed to lead the EPA in the future who adheres to the EPA’s mission of protecting environmental and human health in the United States. It will instead only be a question of whether President Trump sticks to his guns on regulatory rollbacks or pushes forward with an environmentally-friendly, fossil fuel-free agenda.
As even political experts are unsure of what may lay in store for the EPA, this is unfortunately where this blog post ends. Be sure to check back in with us regularly to stay up to date on the latest and breaking environmental news, and as always: the next step to a cleaner tomorrow begins with you. Thanks for reading.