In one of the infamous debate moments of the Republican presidential primary season, Texas Gov. Rick Perry forgot one of the federal agencies he wanted to axe along with the Departments of Education and Commerce if he became president. Ron Paul offered up the Environmental Protection Agency.
“EPA, there you go,” responded Perry, hopeful that everyone would overlook his stumble.
But the moderator wouldn’t let him off the hook. “Seriously — is EPA the one you are talking about?”
“No, sir. No, sir. We are talking about the — agencies of government — EPA needs to be rebuilt,” mumbled Perry.
Later Perry remembered the third agency was the Department of Energy, but he made it clear the EPA was in his sights as well.
The EPA was a frequent target of attacks throughout the primaries as presidential contenders tried to appeal to an increasingly conservative and ideologically rigid Republican primary electorate. Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul vowed to get rid of the EPA. Mitt Romney declared the EPA was “out of control.” Michelle Bachmann promised to “have the doors locked and lights turned off” at the EPA.
Meanwhile in Congress, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives held votes on more than 200 bills in 2011 that directly aimed to curtail the EPA’s regulatory authority and undermine environmental protections of air, water and public health.
The open hostility displayed toward the EPA and environmental protections in general came from all corners of the Republican Party — from Tea Party freshmen in the House of Representatives to senior Senate leaders, including Kentucky’s own Sen. Mitch McConnell, and covered all issues — from climate-change science to endangered species protections. The depth and degree of antagonism to even the most common-sense environmental regulations has many in the environmental community worried about potential outcomes of the 2012 elections. Could a President Romney use an executive order to close down the EPA or give the House Republicans veto authority over any new rules or regulations developed by the agency? If Republicans gained control of Congress and the presidency, would they use that power to repeal or weaken the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts and roll back much of the recent progress on carbon pollution? By contrast, would President Obama, freed from electoral pressures, finally push for a real energy policy that would shift the country from its dependency on fossil fuels to a clean energy path?
With Republicans increasingly taking extreme anti-regulatory positions, and time quickly running out to address climate change in a meaningful way, 2012 could be a watershed election for environmental policy.
Obama Rallies the EPA
In early January 2012, while the Republican presidential candidates were campaigning across New Hampshire in the run-up to that state’s presidential primary, President Obama dropped by the Environmental Protection Agency to give a short pep talk. The move was meant to show support to the beleaguered employees of the EPA, who had been subject to a steady barrage of attacks from Republicans in Congress, the conservative media and presidential candidates on the campaign trail.
The president reaffirmed his support for the mission of the EPA to a clearly appreciative crowd. “The EPA touches on the lives of every single American every single day,” Obama said. “You help make sure that the air we breathe, the water we drink and the foods we eat are safe. You protect the environment not just for our children, but for their children.”
Under the leadership of Administrator Lisa Jackson, and with the support of the White House, the EPA rolled out a series of significant measures in the first three years of the Obama presidency — dramatically increasing fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks from the current Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard of 24.1 miles per gallon to 54.5 by 2025; and setting tough new limits on mercury and other toxic emissions from power plants as well as rules targeting pollution emissions that cross state lines.
Critics of the agency have argued that the new regulations will kill jobs and slow down the economy just as the nation is struggling to climb out of the recession. In fact, the phrase “job-killing regulations” has become a fixture in floor speeches by House conservatives as well as pundits on conservative media outlets.
In his speech to the EPA, President Obama pushed back against that argument. “I don’t buy the notion that we have to make a choice between having clean air and clean water and growing this economy in a robust way,” Obama said. “I think that is a false debate.”
Evidence is on the president’s side. A recent Senate report concludes that in more than 40 years since the creation of the EPA, an estimated 1.7 million jobs and $300 billion in revenues have been generated by industries that support environmental protection. Further, clean air protections will produce an estimated $2 trillion in annual health benefits by 2020, and up to 26,669 jobs are created for every $1 billion invested in infrastructure to reduce water pollution and treat drinking water.
Since taking control of the House in 2010, Republicans have launched a sweeping and coordinated assault to effectively roll back the federal government’s ability to safeguard air and water, according to Democrats and environmental advocates.
“Republicans have made an assault on all environmental issues,” said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) earlier this year. “This is, without a doubt, the most anti-environmental Congress in history.”
H.R. 1, the House version of the appropriations bill for 2011, started the parade of anti-environmental legislation in the 112th Congress. The bill was written to provide annual funding for government programs but contained hundreds of amendments that had little to do with federal spending but reflected a right-wing ideological wish list, and more specifically, political favors to 2010 campaign-contributing polluting industries.
H.R.1 read like a murderer’s row of anti-green initiatives — slashing the EPA budget by a third; ordering the EPA to stop regulating greenhouse gases (as it has been ordered to do by the Supreme Court); and preventing the EPA from curbing pollution from mercury, arsenic, PCBs, dioxins and heavy metals at cement plants. Those were some of the more obvious measures. Others would have prevented the EPA from updating its standards on soot pollution, regulating mountaintop removal mining or developing procedures for the handling of coal ash. The riders would have also prevented the regulation of drilling in Alaska under the Clean Air Act, ended protection of endangered fish in San Francisco Bay under the Endangered Species Act, and shuttered a program aimed at cleaning up Chesapeake Bay.
The League of Conservation Voters (LCV) called H.R. 1 the “greatest legislative assault ever on the environment and public health,” and noted that the bill “included massive funding cuts and policy assaults on our air, water, wildlife and wild places.”
Most, but not all, of the riders were dropped in negotiations with the Senate due to opposition from President Obama and Senate leaders. However, the precedent was set and an endless series of attacks followed, some gaining big headlines, but others quietly seeking to undermine obscure rules that have provided the foundation for environmental protections for decades.
One of the most serious threats to the regulatory authority of the EPA came in a bill passed by the House in September 2011 — the Transparency in Regulatory Analysis of Impacts on the Nation (TRAIN) Act. The TRAIN Act would have created a special committee to oversee the EPA’s rules and regulations, and required the agency to consider economic impacts on polluters when setting air pollution standards. Since passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, only scientific and public health considerations have been allowed in that analysis. The TRAIN Act would also indefinitely delay two critical public health standards that reduce harmful pollution from power plants: the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards for power plants and the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule.
Sara Chieffo, legislative director for LVC, says the TRAIN Act places polluters’ economic interests above public health. Currently, EPA?standards for informing the public about air quality are guided by the best scientific understanding of pollution’s health impacts. Economic impacts are considered but can’t be the sole factor determining pollution levels. For the first time in the 40-year history of the Clean Air Act, the TRAIN Act would abolish the public’s right to know if they are being exposed to dangerous pollution levels.
“It is like setting up a system where the doctor couldn’t tell you that you were sick if your insurance company said your treatment would cost too much,” Chieffo says.
The Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act, passed by the House in November 2011, would have required congressional approval of all executive branch regulations if they were determined to have an annual economic impact of $100 million or more. Given the current climate in Washington, REINS would essentially halt the government’s capacity to adopt or even update any significant regulations.
From the beginning of the Obama presidency, and especially after the mid-term elections, the Republican Party has clearly defined itself as staunchly anti-EPA and at odds with any policy remotely suspected of having a green tinge.
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) became famous for apologizing to BP and calling the White House’s effort to hold the company accountable for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico a “shakedown.” He derided EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in a congressional hearing in September 2011 for failing to consider the cost to industry in the EPA rule-writing process.
“It’s as if there’s some evil genie at the EPA bound and determined to put every regulation possible on the books as soon as possible, regardless of the economic consequences,” Barton said.
A Light in the Smog
While EPA employees see President Obama as an ally, especially in the current political climate, the president’s visit to the EPA was also part of a fence-mending campaign with the agency and the wider environmental community.
In September 2011, President Obama blindsided agency administrators and environmental activists with the decision to shelve new regulatory standards for smog (ground-level ozone). Administrator Jackson was personally invested in raising smog standards. Her son suffers from asthma and she has repeatedly said the Bush-era rules “were not legally defensible.”
“This is one of the most important protection measures we can take to safeguard our health and our environment,” Jackson said in 2009 when announcing plans to tighten the George W. Bush-era standards. “Smog in the air we breathe can cause difficulty breathing and aggravate asthma, especially in children.”
Business interests argued the smog rule would be one of the most expensive regulations in history, costing up to $90 billion annually. Lobbyists also made it clear that moving forward with the smog rule would hurt President Obama’s re-election bid. In late 2011, with the economic recovery still sputtering, the White House caved to the pressure and opted to shelve the decision on the rules until 2013.
The administration’s backpedaling took the EPA by surprise, and infuriated environmental and public health activists across the country. Combined with the decision to moderately expand offshore oil drilling, the move took some of the luster from Obama’s other environmental policy achievements in fuel efficiency standards and power plant emissions.
However, speaking to EPA employees, Obama reaffirmed that he remained committed to sensible environmental regulation. He praised the agency for its accomplishments over the past 40 years, and, in a rebuke to the Republican presidential candidates, noted that those who would do away with the EPA forget what life was like before the creation of the agency. He referenced the burning of Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River — which had been filled to the brim with oil-soaked debris — the year before the creation of the EPA.
Like many progressive groups that embraced the Obama campaign in 2008, the environmental community saw a historic opportunity to advance environmental policy in Obama’s presidency. And, on many fronts, expectations have been met. But there have been disappointments, too.
“We had great hope when President Obama came into office. We thought he would tackle the big issues like passing comprehensive greenhouse gas legislation,” says Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch. “The polarized atmosphere in Washington certainly contributed to the failure to get that done, but the administration thought that health care was the only bullet in their gun, and they have been shooting blanks for the rest of the term, especially after the mid-term elections.”
When asked about expectations in environmental policy during a potential second term for the Obama administration, environmental activists are much more realistic. They speak of building on and solidifying the gains of the past three years, rather than the grand hopes of a comprehensive program to address carbon emissions and climate change. And, despite recognition of the poisoned state of politics in Washington and the realism with which the Obama presidency is now viewed, there is still hope that some progress can be made.
“My hope is that in a second term President Obama would resolve some of the issues that were left hanging in the first term, specifically in relation to smog standards, vehicle emissions and the cross-state pollution rules,” O’Donnell says.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Peter Lehner, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Though he praises Obama as a “staunch defender of public health and the environment,” he adds, “There is still so much to be done on air pollution and moving forward with the clean-energy economy.”
How Would Mitt Govern?
No one knows for sure how Mitt Romney would approach environmental policy. The contrast between his governing record in Massachusetts and his rhetoric on the campaign trail has been striking.
The Wall Street Journal reported that as governor, Romney was “open to regulatory as well as market-oriented answers to environmental problems — while also willing to work with committed environmentalists and liberal Democrats.”
Gov. Romney placed caps on emissions from coal-fired power plants and expressed support for the idea that humans were contributing to climate change and that significant policy responses were needed. He explored the possibility of joining a regional carbon cap-and-trade program with other Northeastern states but ultimately backed out of the program because of concerns regarding impacts on business
Cap and trade was a mainstream conservative policy response to the growing scientific findings regarding climate change, and was even a part of Sen. John McCain’s policy platform during his 2008 presidential campaign. But more recently, cap and trade and climate-change science have nosedived from favor in the Republican Party, leading presidential candidate Romney to say the following in October 2011: “My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet. And the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try to reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us.”
While it’s easy to dismiss such rhetoric as pandering to the conservative electorate, Romney has released a rather voluminous jobs plan that does contain real hints as to how he might govern. The plan says that as president, Romney would seek to amend the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts to ensure costs are fully taken into consideration in the regulatory process, claiming that these laws were effective at a “time when the environment was severely contaminated,” but “today, such laws are a costly anachronism.”
Romney has also said that he does not believe that carbon emissions are a threat to human health and that he would not move forward with EPA climate regulations. “I exhale carbon dioxide,” Romney said in November 2011 in reference to the EPA. “I don’t want those guys following me around with a meter to see if I’m breathing too hard.”
Many environmental activists worry that even a moderate Romney administration would be pressured to move to the right by the conservative leadership in Congress.
Attempts to repeal or severely weaken the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts could easily follow a Romney victory or the election of a Republican-controlled Congress. “The Clean Air Act has been amended several times in the past,” says Paul Billings, vice president of national policy and advocacy for the American Lung Association. “Historically, there have been regular attempts at full-out repeal, and it could be repealed all or in part.”
John Walke, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says that with a switch in power in Washington there is real potential for legislative attempts to weaken environmental and health protections. “If the leadership in the House stayed the same and the Senate switched parties, you could easily have atrocious legislation passed by the House and Senate and signed into law by a President Romney,” Walke says.
Romney has already expressed support for some of the more extreme anti-environmental policies to come out of the House, such as the REINS Act. Walke explains that even if Democrats retain control of the Senate or retake the House, a Romney administration has signaled it would not allow divided government to hamstring the assault on environmental and health protections. In fact, in his recent jobs plan titled “Believe in America: Mitt Romney’s Plan for Jobs and Economic Growth,” Romney went so far as to pledge that he would essentially put REINS into effect even if Congress could not pass it. The plan states:
Mitt Romney supports implementation of a law, similar to the REINS Act now before Congress, that would require all “major” rules (i.e., those with an economic impact greater than $100 million) to be approved by both houses of Congress before taking effect. If Congress declines to enact such a law, a President Romney will issue an executive order instructing all agencies that they must invite Congress to vote up or down on their major regulations and forbidding them from putting those regulations into effect without congressional approval.
According to Walke, enacting the REINS Act or an executive order to that effect would essentially give the House of Representatives veto authority over executive branch enforcement of law. “This policy borders on constitutional contempt and is profoundly anti-democratic,” Walke says. “Romney is saying that he would give ideological extremists in the House the opportunity to block any law they cannot change through the legislative process. I don’t think the public is aware of how irresponsible that pledge is.”
A Hard Right Turn
Romney’s transformation from the moderate governor of a blue state to an ultra-conservative presidential candidate mirrors the ideological makeover of the Republican Party in general. Moderates have disappeared and even the staunchest conservatives fear a primary challenge from the Tea Party on their right.
While there are many explanations for the dramatic shift rightward by the Republican Party on environmental issues, the influence of corporate money from polluting industries is one of the most significant. The 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling opened the floodgates of corporate money into elections. The millions of dollars previously spent on lobbying are now being used to directly elect candidates sympathetic to corporate interests, and energy companies are using the new system to their advantage.
Americans for Prosperity (AFP), an organization founded by oil billionaire David Koch, has worked to fund and fuel Tea Party organizational and electoral efforts and is directly involved in working against protections for the environment. AFP pumped millions of dollars into campaigns in the 2010 cycle and has already invested $10 million in the Romney campaign indirectly through its status as a political action committee. According to the website Politico, the oil and gas billionaire brothers, David and Charles Koch, plan to steer more than $200 million to conservative groups ahead of election day.
“The oil and gas industry and the Koch Brothers are going all in and investing significantly in Romney,” says Mike Palamuso, vice president of communications for the LCV. “And we are seeing the results — he now says that he is a climate-change denier, that he supports protecting billions in subsidies for the oil and gas industry, and that wind and solar are not real energy. We have to take him at his word that is how he will govern.”
However, Palamuso believes the attacks on the EPA are misguided from a policy standpoint and are also a mistake politically. “One of the biggest misconceptions in Washington is that the EPA is unpopular,” Palamuso says. “At the end of the day, people want to know that their water and air are safe and they like the fact that the EPA is out there making sure protections are in place.”
Palamuso points to a recent national survey that showed solid majority support (71 percent) for “the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requiring reductions in carbon emissions from sources like power plants, cars and factories in an effort to reduce global warming pollution.”
“Attacking the EPA is classic overreach,” Palamuso says. “I think the Romney campaign is backing themselves into a corner on this issue.”
The support for the EPA highlighted in the survey likely reflects public acknowledgement of the benefits of environmental and health safeguards. The EPA recently issued a report, which looked at the results of the Clean Air Act from 1990 to 2020. According to this study, the direct benefits from the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments are estimated to reach almost $2 trillion for the year 2020, over 30 times more than the $65 billion costs of implementation. In 2020, Clean Air Act amendments will prevent more than 230,000 early deaths. Most of the $2 trillion in economic benefits (about 85 percent) are attributable to reductions in premature deaths associated with reductions in airborne particulates. This was further borne out by a White House study that found that between 2000 and 2010, 32 major EPA rules together ultimately yielded estimated annual benefits between $82 billion and $551 billion, with annual costs in the $23 billion to $29 billion range. Most of these benefits are from reduced exposure to particulates as well. The Office of Management and Budget also found that the benefits of EPA rules issued in fiscal year 2010 alone — such as new sulfur dioxide standards — far outweigh the costs, with estimated annual benefits reaching the $11 billion to $61 billion range and costs in the $2 billion to $4 billion range.
While these sorts of substantive details are rarely the grist for debate in modern political campaigns, they provide important counterweight to the conservative arguments that environmental regulations are dragging down our economy — a message the public rarely hears.
One of the sad ironies of the current political clashes over environmental protections is that many of the agencies conservatives want to shutter and laws they want to overturn were Republican initiatives. President Nixon established the EPA and signed the Clean Air Act into law. George H.W. Bush was responsible for a major update of the Clean Air Act in 1990. Even George W. Bush, mostly known for dismantling safeguards and attempting to marginalize science from the policy process, pushed for adoption of tougher fuel and engine standards to control harmful emissions from non-road diesel-fueled equipment. It is doubtful that any of these policies would receive support in today’s Republican Party.
There was a time when conservation was conservative. At present, that seems like the very distant past. President Obama seemed to acknowledge as much in his talk to the EPA.
“When I hear folks grumbling about environmental policy, you almost want to do a ‘Back to the Future’ reminder of folks of what happened when we didn’t have a strong EPA,” the president said.
Obama referred to his hometown Chicago River: “You probably could not find anything alive in there four decades ago. Now, it’s thriving.”
Josh McDaniel is an environmental journalist whose work has appeared in E/The Environmental Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor and Grist.
Illustration by Mark McGinnis.