My name is Michael Cox. I retired from the US Environmental Protection Agency on March 31, 2017, after more than 25 years of service. Prior to retiring, I sent the agency’s new administrator, Scott Pruitt, a letter outlining my concerns about the direction of EPA under his leadership. It got some attention in the media (New York Times, King 5 News, Washington Post, and KUOW, among others).
I was hopeful he would make some adjustments to better engage EPA career staff and to push back on the Trump Administration’s efforts to dramatically cut EPA’s budget and reduce staff to levels not seen for over 30 years. Unfortunately, based on the President’s most recent EPA budget, my conversations with EPA staff, and some of Pruitt’s decisions, I am now even more concerned.
Several EPA decisions over the past two months are particularly disturbing. These include:
- the settlement agreement with Pebble Limited Partnership on the development of the Pebble Mine in Alaska;
- the removal of scientists from the EPA Board of Scientific Counselors;
- the decision to withdraw a survey of the oil and gas companies asking about onshore equipment and controls that could reduce greenhouse gas pollution, including methane; and
- the decision to override the recommendations of EPA scientists on the use of chlorpyrifos.
Collectively, these decisions indicate a pattern of disregard for science, lack of consultation with EPA staff who have worked on these issues for years, and an obvious bias in favor of industry.
It is becoming apparent that the Trump administration is on a path that will continue to alienate EPA staff and a large section of the public. More importantly, these actions will lead to real environmental harm. There are several areas where better leadership is urgently needed to safeguard the US and to keep EPA true to its mission. I highlight two areas below.
Addressing climate change
Climate change is a core part of EPA’s mission, and to say otherwise is shortsighted and contrary to the laws on the books and the best available science. Negligence on this issue puts millions of Americans at risk.
Pruitt has stated “that climate change is a diversion from EPA’s main mission.” But EPA’s mission is to protect human health and the environment. To claim that reducing greenhouse gas emissions and working with communities to help them adapt to climate change is not part of EPA’s main mission is wrong and a breach of duty as EPA Administrator.
Go to the EPA web page and look under “environmental topics.” Presumably, the topics listed here are those that the EPA believes are of greatest concern. The list includes bed bugs, but, shockingly, does not include climate change. While bed bugs can be a serious problem, it is remarkable that climate change is not even included as an environmental topic of concern.
On the global stage, Pruitt strongly advocated for the United States to withdraw from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, and it appears President Trump took his advice. The one silver lining to this decision is that many of America’s largest businesses, including Exxon Mobil, voiced support for the United States to stay in the agreement, along with state, local, and tribal governments and many large foundations. They understood that Administrator Pruitt was wrong to characterize the Paris Agreement as a “bad deal” for America, and many organizations refuted his arguments masterfully (see NRDC, Harvard Gazette, and Bloomberg, for example).
EPA’s partnerships with state, local, and tribal governments
Administrator Pruitt’s lack of understanding of EPA’s work is damaging staff morale and pitting EPA against its most important partners. The President’s recent 2018 budget document proposes dramatic cuts to EPA’s budget and staffing. A theme throughout the budget document is that state, local, and tribal governments need to take more responsibilities for the implementation and enforcement of environmental laws and programs. This is consistent with the position of Administrator Pruitt, who has stated that he would work to restore the role of states. The implication of both the budget and Pruitt’s position is that EPA has not been working closely with these partners to date.
This inference is not consistent with my 25 years of experience at EPA, and it unfortunately indicates that Administrator Pruitt does not understand the work EPA has been doing. Further, it undermines his credibility with EPA staff who have in fact been working very closely with state, local, and tribal governments for decades. EPA does not always agree with state, local, and tribal governments, but they are considered partners in everything EPA does.
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Beyond disparaging long relationships, the 2018 EPA Administration budget reduces funding to state, local, and tribal governments by almost half. Many states are struggling to balance their budgets. For example, Alaska is dealing with falling oil revenue, and Washington State must meet a court order to provide billions of additional dollars for education. The idea that states will allocate additional funds for environmental programs given these challenges is slim.
I expect I disagree with Administrator Pruitt on the role of government and, specifically, the role of EPA in solving our nation’s problems. However, I would ask him to think about the impact his leadership and policies will have on his and my children and grandchildren. I can only hope that he will ask himself, “What if I am wrong about climate change, and the impacts are as bad as the majority of scientists around the world are projecting?”
Administrator Pruitt is in a very powerful and influential position. He has a choice: He can honor his position as EPA Administrator and provide leadership on moving the US forward to protect the American people and the environment. Or he can abdicate his responsibilities as the Chief Environment Officer of the United States and risk causing harm that will remain long after he leaves his position.
Michael Cox retired after over 25 years working for the Environmental Protection Agency. He lives on Bainbridge Island.