A warning for Donald Trump: Gutting the EPA would be harder – and more perilous – than you think

Diane Regas

Editor’s note: On Dec. 7, 2016, President-elect Donald Trump picked Scott Pruitt, who opposes major clean air rules and doubts climate science, to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Donald Trump has been clear about his plans for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He wants to dismantle it.

“We’re going to have little tidbits left but we’re going to get most of it out,” he said at one point.

“Environmental Protection, what they do is a disgrace,” he said at another. Asked who would protect our air and water, he replied, “We’ll be fine with the environment. We can leave a little bit …”

Now the president-elect has begun making good on his promise by appointing as chief of his environmental transition team a Washington lobbyist named Myron Ebell, who for decades has made his living by opposing pretty much everything the EPA does.

So I take our new president at his word.

We’ve seen this movie before and it doesn’t go well

Now, I don’t claim to be a disinterested observer. I worked at the EPA for 19 years, at one point running the office charged with protecting America’s clean water. I advised Republican and Democratic presidents.

Today, I work for a major environmental organization. To me, it’s obvious that a cleaner environment and a safer climate aren’t part of a radical left-wing agenda, but rather are a core American value, shared by a huge majority of citizens.

Every major piece of environmental legislation, from the Clean Air Act to the toxic chemicals protection bill signed in June by President Barack Obama, has been passed by bringing together ideas from Republicans and Democrats – ultimately earning overwhelming support from both sides.

So I have a message for the President-elect. I don’t know anyone who wants to go back to the way it was before Richard Nixon established the EPA.

We’ve seen this movie before and it doesn’t go well. Not for the environment, not for American business – but especially not for any administration that tries to reverse our environmental progress.

Gingrich’s dirty water bill: Political disaster

In 1995, I was at the EPA when the new speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, pushed a ‘dirty water’ bill that would have allowed factories and sewage treatment plants to spew more pollution into our rivers, lakes, and coastal waters, eviscerating the Clean Water Act.

The attack became a political disaster for Republicans, even those who had earned reputations as leaders on the environment. The message the public heard was that their leaders in Congress opposed core American values and wanted to sweep away basic protections.

The proposal went nowhere in the Senate, leaving only distrust in its wake. The lesson, however, didn’t seem to sink in.

Toxic reaction to Bush’s arsenic policy

Shortly after George W. Bush became President in 2001, he withdrew a rule I had been working on to reduce arsenic levels in drinking water. It was terrible for public health and terrible politics.

The reaction was swift, fierce and angry. Turns out that Americans don’t want more arsenic in their drinking water. Bush couldn’t back away fast enough, and admitted he’d completely miscalculated.

So Trump should be forewarned. The anger we have seen against past attempts to roll back bedrock environmental protections will pale in comparison to the fury that will be unleashed if the Trump administration carries out its campaign promises.

Smart businessmen don’t renege on deals

This time, the opposition won’t just come from environmentalists and the majority of the American people, but also from prominent U.S. businesses, and, if Trump reneges on our international climate commitments, from virtually the entire world as well.

America led the way to a global climate accord, forged last year in Paris, in which the nations of the world unanimously agreed for the first time ever– to reduce the carbon pollution that is destabilizing our climate.

By influencing corporate investment decisions, the Paris Agreement is accelerating our clean energy economy, creating such huge opportunities for business that its supporters include a who’s who of American companies, from Walmart and Microsoft to electric utilities like PG&E, and yes, even ExxonMobil.

A smart businessman, Donald Trump should think twice before renouncing a major treaty obligation, an action that would hurt America’s standing in the world and hurt American business.

Trump may waste years fighting rules

Finally, the Trump team may not yet realize that gutting environmental rules is a long, arduous process. Regulations cannot be issued or rescinded without an extensive effort to gather and respond to detailed comments from stakeholders on all sides.

For example, if Obama’s groundbreaking Clean Power Plan, which requires states to cut power plant carbon emissions, is upheld in the D.C. Circuit court, the regulations can be undone only by proposing an entirely new rule with a legally convincing argument for why the change is necessary.

Such formal rulemaking takes years and would be challenged in court every step of the way. The same is true for Obama’s new curbs on emissions of methane from oil and gas drilling and operations, and a host of other rules. Even officially withdrawing from the Paris Agreement requires four years notice.

A Trump Administration is likely to lose the political battle long before it ends up losing the legal war.

History 101: Trump would lose this fight 

Like so many others, I have been disturbed by Trump’s divisive rhetoric. I also know that his plans to gut our environmental protections would hit minority and poor communities from West Oakland to Appalachia the hardest.

If President Trump does act on those plans, a broad coalition of Americans who care about the health of their children will fight tooth and nail, using everything at our disposal. Past history strongly suggests that we will win.

But I don’t want that fight. I would much rather return to the historical cooperation that has brought us so much environmental progress, so many new clean energy jobs, and so many prospects for a better, stronger future.

Trump family said what about climate?

My hope mirrors an open letter that a group of business leaders ran in the New York Times in 2009. The letter strongly supported President Obama’s efforts to protect the environment and fight climate change, saying: “If we fail to act now, it is scientifically irrefutable that there will be catastrophic and irreversible consequences for humanity and our planet.”

Moreover, the letter added, such action “will spur economic growth” and “create new energy jobs.” That letter was signed by Donald J. Trump, Donald Trump, Jr., Eric Trump, and Ivanka Trump.

They were right then. My fervent hope now is that they quickly reverse the wrong turn they’ve made.

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