Three former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrators who served under Republican presidents urged Congress to ramp up its oversight of the Trump EPA on Tuesday, expressing distress at the agency’s attempts to mislead the public on the risks of climate change and brush aside science in decision-making.
They were joined by Democrat Gina McCarthy, the agency’s chief under President Barack Obama, illustrating that these are bipartisan sentiments.
“I find it disconcerting,” McCarthy told a congressional hearing, that “this collection of past EPA Administrators feel obligated to testify together and individually to make the case that what is happening at EPA today is, simply put, not normal, and to solicit your help to get it on a more productive path.”
Lee M. Thomas, who served under President Ronald Reagan as EPA administrator from 1985 to 1989 before becoming a business executive, questioned whether EPA is fulfilling its mission.
“Does the Agency have adequate resources with the strong scientific capability it needs? Is it seeking input form key scientific advisory committees? Is it coordinating actively with the broad scientific community on research surrounding environmental issues? I don’t think they do,” he wrote in his testimony for the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on oversight and investigations.
All of the former administrators stressed that the current EPA needs clear direction from Congress and a return to the bipartisan support and adherence to science that bolstered the agency in the past, when major environmental legislation would pass with overwhelming margins.
Each had been involved in regulations that President Donald Trump’s administration is now trying to dismantle.
William K. Reilly was administrator under George H.W. Bush when the Clean Air Act was reauthorized and rules for ozone-depleting chemicals and toxic emissions were added. The Clean Air Act has been a frequent target of Trump administration attempts to roll back pollution regulations.
“Our country continues to face serious challenges in protecting public health and natural resources,” Reilly said, naming climate change and building community resiliency to address the impacts of extreme weather events, coastal erosion and sea level rise, among other challenges. He has criticized Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement.
“These challenges require an EPA that is strong, credible, and sufficiently resourced to conduct and sponsor timely research and risk assessments,” he said.
Christine Todd Whitman, EPA administrator under George W. Bush from 2001 to 2003, also talked about her growing concerns about the impact of climate change, particularly on the ocean that borders her home state of New Jersey, and about the risks to human health from pollution.
Whitman listed several “egregious actions” by the Trump EPA, including its plans to roll back vehicle emissions standards, repeal methane emissions from oil and gas operations, and relax regulations on toxic air pollution.
At the same time, she noted, it has been replacing scientists on its Science Advisory Board with industry representatives and trying to formally restrict the scientific evidence EPA can use in policy making.
The Trump administration is “using ideology to drive environmental policy instead of letting science drive policy,” Whitman said.
Rollbacks Under the Trump Administration
The hearing was sparked by a letter in April in which seven former EPA administrators, who served under both Republicans and Democrats dating back to President Richard Nixon, wrote to Congress urging greater supervision of EPA policy.
“We are united that there has never been a more important time for us to put aside our differences and advocate collectively for public health and the environment. Time is of the essence, and much is at stake,” the letter said.
The EPA under Trump has worked to roll back numerous environmental and climate-related regulations.
In 2017 and 2018, the administration undertook at least 94 actions to undermine or reverse climate protections, according to Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. The EPA also removed from its website discussions of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, and it has seen significant turnover: In its first 18 months, 1,600 career employees left the agency. Just 400 new employees were hired during that time.
Concerns about Close Ties to Industry
Whitman and the others also talked about the danger of the current EPA leadership’s close ties to industry and tendency to follow industry’s interests rather than science.
Among the Trump EPA’s close industry ties: the current EPA administrator, Andrew Wheeler, is a former lobbyist for coal and other regulated industries, and the head of the Office of Air and Radiation, Bill Wehrum, previously represented power plants that the EPA regulates.
A study last year, when Wheeler was deputy administrator, found that industries EPA regulates had so much sway over the Trump EPA that the agency was on the verge of “regulatory capture.”
“There is no doubt in my mind that under the current administration the EPA is retreating from its historic mission to protect our environment and the health of the public from environmental hazards,” Whitman wrote in her testimony. “Therefore, I urge this committee, in the strongest possible terms, to exercise Congress’s oversight responsibilities over the actions and direction of EPA in all of the areas I have discussed, and especially when it comes to climate change.”