The EPA isn’t focused on environmental protection. So does it need a new name?
By John D. Sutter, CNN May 9, 2017
John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN who focuses on climate change and social justice.
The US Environmental Protection Agency’s mission in the era of President Donald Trump seems to have very little to do with, well, protecting the environment.
Consider a few of the most recent news items:
- EPA head Scott Pruitt recently dismissed half of the members from an important science advisory board; an EPA spokesperson told CNN the agency wants scientists from various backgrounds, including those from industry.
- The EPA has removed many references to “climate change” on its website, replacing real, science-based information with a note saying the site is “being updated.”
- And the Trump administration has called for a 31% cut to the EPA’s budget.
Also consider the rhetoric and history of EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, who let a fossil fuel company essentially write a letter he sent to the EPA when he was Oklahoma attorney general, according to emails released through a public records request. (Pruitt did not comment at the time and an EPA spokesman said the agency would not be commenting).
Pruitt has repeatedly made a mockery of the role of fossil fuels and carbon dioxide pollution in causing global warming, and before he took the helm at EPA, he sued the agency repeatedly in an effort to combat environmental regulations.
“The war on coal is over; the war on fossil fuel is over, ” Pruitt said outside a power plant in April. Never mind that coal and fossil fuels contribute to global warming, which is expected to raise sea levels, worsen droughts, contribute to crop failure and threaten our very existence.
Yeah, none of this looks good. “They are not just isolated acts,” said David Doniger, director and senior attorney of the climate and clean air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC, an environmental group. “On any one thing, (Pruitt) might have deserved … the benefit of the doubt. But there are so many of these things that there is no doubt where this is headed.”
Rename the EPA?
Given that, it seems reasonable to ask a provocative question: Is the Environmental Protection Agency still worthy of its name? Maybe, given the sweeping changes in the agency’s apparent focus, the EPA needs a new and more-accurate acronym. I realize that’s an unlikely if not impossible request.
Yes, I would rather see the Environmental Protection Agency simply live up to its mandate. And no, I wouldn’t want the name change to reflect poorly on the EPA as an enduring institution or on its many smart, hardworking scientists and policy experts.
But there is risk in doing nothing.
Namely: We move further into “1984” territory. That George Orwell novel, which is a best seller again these days, highlights the absurdity of government bodies whose names belie their actual purposes.
The fictional Ministry of Truth promotes propaganda, for example. The Ministry of Plenty, oversees rationing programs. The Ministry of Peace, is actually waging war. By continuing to call the EPA the Environmental Protection Agency, we risk further sapping those words of their meaning. We might enter a world not only of “alternative facts” but alternative reality.
‘It was bold’
These shifts are especially troubling when you know the history of the EPA — and its name.
Republican President Richard Nixon chose the name for the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, the year of its creation, according to Richard “Pete” Andrews, an emeritus professor of public policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I called up Andrews because he is an expert on the history of the EPA and author of “Managing the Environment, Managing Ourselves: A History of American Environmental Policy.”
The agency came into existence, Andrews told me, essentially because of a “nonpartisan outcry” demanding protection for the environment. “Silent Spring “ had highlighted the horrors of DDT and other chemicals in the environment; a river in Ohio caught on fire; Lake Erie was feared “dead.” Something had to be done.
That something, in part, was the EPA. “It was bold,” Andrews said of the agency and its name. Inherent in its creation was a desire to set minimum federal environmental protections so that “if you travel from one state to another you’re not going to endanger your health by breathing the air.”
Pruitt misrepresents this history, Andrews told me, by insisting that the original mandate of environmental law was to give states the power to police themselves. (Pruitt, meanwhile, says he wants to “restore the EPA’s essential mission of keeping our air and our water clean and safe.” Let’s assume that’s true. It still wouldn’t be enough in 2017, when climate change is an overarching concern.)
The EPA was cobbled together from other agencies — a clearing house, so to speak, for environmental monitoring, education and regulation. It gained authority through landmark laws, including the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. And it showed that the public could drive action.
“Nixon was seeing a mob coming at him — and jumping in front of it and calling it a parade,” Andrews said, referring to the first Earth Day demonstrations, which also occurred in 1970. “He had no prior background in this. But he saw this was a big issue and so he seized it.” If only the same could happen with Trump and Pruitt.
‘Department of Catastrophic Myopia …’
Out of curiosity, I asked Twitter and my newsletter subscribers to suggest a few (more accurate?) names for the Trump-and-Pruitt-era Environmental Protection Agency.
Among the most interesting: the Exxon Protection Agency; the Coal and Oil Management Agency, or COMA; the Environmental Destruction Agency; Enrich Pruitt’s Allies; and the Department of Catastrophic Myopia Fueled by Anti-Scientific Foolishness, or DCMFASF for short.
I don’t particularly want to see the EPA renamed DCMFASF. I’d like to see Trump learn from the public the way Nixon did. I’d like to believe the agency can return to its mission of protecting public health and the environment at a time when climate change policy, especially, is critical to the very future of humanity.
I bet Trump saw footage of the thousands of protestors who gathered at the People’s Climate March in Washington DC recently, demanding an end to the fossil fuel era.
And I hope he and Pruitt are aware of the history of EPA overhauls. Doniger, the director and senior attorney from NRDC, told me this moment feels chillingly similar to the start of President Ronald Reagan’s administration. Reagan appointed Anne Gorsuch –mother of Trump’s Supreme Court justice pick, — as his first administrator of the EPA.
“She cut the budget and dismantled the laws, fired the scientists — or at least ignored them, etc.,” Doniger said. “What happened with Gorsuch is that she got about two years into this mission of destroying the agency and there was a broad rebellion that manifested in the media and in public opinion and in the Democratically-controlled Congress,” he continued. After “a number of scandals, Reagan sacked her,” Doniger said. (Her obituary in the Washington Post says she “resigned under fire. “)
This history shows that the public — and the courts — still matter. The very creation of the EPA, remember, emerged from public outcry. Yes, things can change. But if they don’t, the EPA’s name should.