It’s still early days, but Scott Pruitt is putting together a solid case to win the title of Worst EPA Administrator.
Of course, the current holder of that ignominy is Anne Gorsuch Buford – the late mother of current Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch – who was cited for contempt of Congress over her grotesque mismanagement of the Superfund program and resigned in disgrace after just 22 months in office. Her tenure at EPA was so destructive that Ronald Reagan ultimately brought original EPA Administrator William Ruckelhaus out of retirement to pick up the pieces of the agency.
While Pruitt has a lot of work to reach the depths of fuckery that Buford achieved, he is on the right track.
Reading from the Buford hymnal
Taking a page from Buford’s playbook, Pruitt has worked to undermine both the EPA’s legitimacy and its capacity to do its job. Instead of defending his staff against the frontal assault posed by the Trump budget proposal, Pruitt is working actively to dismantle EPA, piece by piece.
He supports plans to slash the Agency’s budget by 31% and cut 28% of staff. Even Republican members of Congress have expressed outrage at a budget that calls for doing away with lead poisoning reduction programs, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, all climate change programming, radon monitoring, and environmental justice initiatives. None of this has stopped Pruitt, who reportedly plans to eliminate 1,200 jobs through buyouts and attrition by the end of the fiscal year.
But, of course, Pruitt’s impact is not contained to staffing decisions at EPA headquarters and regional offices.
No, when he’s not busy “basically trying to destroy the place,” Pruitt, his team full of alums from Jim Inhofe’s office, and industry friends have worked to systematically destroy the Obama administration’s environmental legacy.
In just over 4 months, they have rescinded the Clean Power Plan; scrapped the Waters of the US rule; frozen the light-duty fuel economy standards; delayed the implementation of the 2015 ground-level ozone standard for at least a year; and succeeded in getting Trump to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, putting the US on equal footing internationally with the Assad regime on climate change.
I’ve watched this parade of nightmares, each more horrible than the last, with an ever-increasing sense of dread. The latest salvo against anything resembling human decency is Pruitt’s plan to make climate change denial an official component of EPA’s scientific review process.
It seems likely that this action marks the first step in a systematic effort to reverse EPA’s landmark endangerment finding, in which the Agency ruled that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are harmful to human health and should be regulated under the Clean Air Act. Reversing the endangerment finding would strip the Agency of its ability to act on climate change for the foreseeable future.
Somehow it actually gets worse
Yet, somehow, none of this is what I want to focus on here. Because, against all odds, Pruitt and his minions at EPA have actually done something arguably more cynical than these abominations. And it happened under the radar, buried on the pages of the Federal Register.
Last spring, President Obama and then-Administrator Gina McCarthy finalized a rule regulating methane emissions from the oil and gas industry. Methane is both a tremendously potent GHG – 84 times more so than CO2 over a 20-year timeframe – and it also contributes to other kinds of pollution, including ozone.
It was in this delay that we get to the heart of the matter. As the Sierra Club pointed out, if you turn to page 35893 of Volume 81, Number 107 of the Federal Register, you’ll come to a section titled “Executive Order 13045: Protection of Children From Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks.”
Here, you’d read the following:
EPA believes that the environmental health or safety risk addressed by this action has a disproportionate effect on children. Accordingly, the Agency has evaluated the environmental health and welfare effects of climate change on children.
Greenhouse gases including methane contribute to climate change and are emitted in significant quantities by the oil and gas sector. The EPA believes that the GHG emission reductions resulting from implementation of these final rules will further improve children’s health…
These assessments describe how children’s unique physiological and developmental factors contribute to making them particularly vulnerable to climate change. Impacts to children are expected from heat waves, air pollution, infectious and waterborne illnesses, and mental health effects resulting from extreme weather events. In addition, children are among those especially susceptible to most allergic diseases, as well as health effects associated with heat waves, storms, and floods. Additional health concerns may arise in low income households, especially those with children, if climate change reduces food availability and increases prices, leading to food insecurity within households.
Apparently sensitive to the fact that his own Agency stated in the effing Federal Register that his decision would disproportionately harm the health of children, Pruitt made sure that the delay included the following language,
Any impacts on children’s health caused by the delay in the rule will be limited, because the length of the proposed stay is limited.
Would that this were some sort of sick joke. But our long national nightmare is just beginning.
Lol at actual science
Given that Pruitt is gleefully putting full-on climate denial quackery on equal footing with peer-reviewed climate science, you won’t be surprised to know that this line of argument has absolutely no basis in legitimate science.
The health impacts of air pollution don’t just magically disappear after 24 months. On the contrary, they can linger for years, and they can even cause irreparable and life-long harm to the vital systems of developing children.
There is also ample evidence that air pollution is directly connected to birth outcomes. As I noted in a previous post, one 2003 study found that declining levels of particulate matter in the US were responsible for 80% of the total reduction in neonatal mortality during the early 1980s.
The impacts of air pollution on economic outcomes
But since Pruitt and Trump seem only concerned about the purported economic costs of environmental regulations, let’s play on their court.
You see, last month, economists Adam Isen, Maya Rossin-Slater, and W. Reed Walker published a study that considered the impacts of air pollution on people’s lifetime economic outcomes.
In this remarkable article in the Journal of Political Economy, the three researchers compared the economic productivity and lifetime earnings potential of children born before and after the implementation of the 1970 Clean AIr Act Amendments (CAAA).
We know that, when pregnant women inhale particulate matter, it can reduce the amount of oxygen transferred to fetus; this impairs fetal brain development and harms the development of the respiratory and cardiovascular systems in fetus. (As I’ve written before, research shows air pollution can have the same impact on a child’s IQ as lead poisoning.)
The authors developed a sample of 148 counties across 24 states; the total population was an impressive 5.4 million people.
According to their results, each 10 microgram per cubic meter increase in particle pollution during a child’s year of birth reduces his/her average annual earnings from ages 29 to 31 by 1%. In turn, a comparable improvement in pollution levels should tend to boost earnings by this amount.
The researchers noted that children born after the Clean Air Act were less likely to live below the poverty line or rely on disability income. Based on their results, they calculated that the financial value of being born after the CAAA went into effect was roughly $4,340 per person, which totaled some $118 billion for all births in 1972.
Our analysis suggests that both economic and environmental inequality may be reinforcing. If this circular relationship is robust, then policies designed to improve air quality may also play a role in thwarting this cycle, thus serving not only as environmental health policies but also as effective social policies for reducing economic disparities.
In other words, if Donald Trump and his team actually cared about addressing economic hardship and inequality, they would be doing more to reduce air pollution and protect the environment. Of course, the reality is they give precisely zero fucks about those issues, and they’re just in this to enrich their fossil fuel benefactors. Protecting children from pollution, lifelong health conditions, a reduced economic status, or premature death is nowhere near the top of their priority lists.
So, seriously, Scott Pruitt is an asshole, folks.