The agency’s budget, rule-making and regulatory impact were sometimes impaired during the Bush years, but then EPA administrator William Reilly was committed to EPA’s mission, and congressional Democrats prevented severe reductions in the agency’s budget, workforce and regulatory authority.
An Unfortunate Time to Regulate
Paradoxically, EPA’s accomplishments may also leave it vulnerable to its opponents. Forty years of regulation have diminished such publicly convincing evidence of severe pollution that led to EPA regulation in the first place, including rivers polluted by raw sewage, hidden toxic waste dumps like New York’s Love Canal, smokestacks emitting dense clouds of pollutants, and uncontained mine wastes contaminating Appalachian mountainsides.
Today’s most significant environmental hazards, such as climate warming or plasticizers in rubber products, are less visible, their adverse consequences requiring years or decades to become apparent. “To a certain extent,” EPA’s first administrator, William Ruckelshaus, has observed, “we are victims of our own success. Right now EPA is under sharp criticism partly because it is not so obvious to people that pollution problems exist and that we need to deal with them.”
Additionally, a public rally to EPA’s defense seems improbable. Most Americans customarily express to pollsters considerable concern for environmental protection when asked, but it is a passive attitude. Neither EPA nor the environment are important issues when most Americans vote — and that’s what most concerns Congress and the White House.
For instance in the 2016 presidential elections, the Pew Research Center poll revealed “the environment” was only twelfth in importance among registered voters, well behind the leading concerns about the economy, terrorism and foreign policy. Exit polls in the 2016 presidential elections indicate that environmental issues are irrelevant to voters’ candidate preferences. Moreover, the currently pervasive public distrust and anger directed toward the federal government may further inhibit public engagement in EPA’s defense.
Pruitt and his administrative team can also inflict immense damage upon regulatory capacity in ways that are not very evident to the public. Almost half of the EPA budget supports such crucial pollution abatement activities as regulation enforcement, scientific research, and international collaboration. Moreover, public doubts about the credibility of climate warming science and environmental risk analysis can be deliberately amplified through public discourse during efforts to rescind existing regulations and to abort new ones.
Environmentalists, deeply apprehensive and infuriated by this new EPA onslaught, have a multitude of opposition options. Lawsuits — a traditionally effective strategy — can be initiated in federal courts to suspend or reverse unacceptable EPA regulatory decisions. But a new wave of litigation will impose considerable delay in important rule-making, and a court-imposed impasse can discourage compliance by regulated interests, such as polluters.
Environmental organizations can attempt to mobilize public support and pressure Congress to counteract Pruitt-led revisions of EPA’s organization and rule-making. In particular increased activism at the state level can be a countervailing force to federal environmental retrenchment. Since major federal environmental legislation has often been crisis-driven, a new environmental disaster may be the perverse catalyst to renewed regulatory vigor at EPA.
None of these alternatives, however, will likely avert an early, comprehensive onset of Pruitt’s regulatory regression at EPA. In short, EPA’s time of trouble will be dangerous and tenacious.
Read more at Why Trump's EPA Is Far More Vulnerable to Attack Than Reagan's or Bush's