Washington Wednesday: Changes at the EPA

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: Washington Wednesday.

NICK EICHER, HOST: These days the Supreme Court vacancy and elections next month dominate national headlines. But major public-policy changes and reforms continue under the Trump administration. And they often receive much less attention than the political theater on Capitol Hill or at the White House.

Today we’ll explore one of those areas: environmental policy.

From the earliest days of his presidential campaign, Donald Trump targeted over-regulation, and one of the agencies he thought most responsible was the Environmental Protection Agency.

He said it over-regulated industry. He said it was a drain on the federal budget.

He vowed to scale back EPA funding and reverse many of its regulations.

Upon taking office, Trump followed through.

TRUMP: With today’s executive action, I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations. [applause]

That was last year as the president signed an order to begin rolling back the Clean Power Plan. In its place came the Affordable Clean Energy rule, which was friendlier to coal.

Among other things, the Trump administration has also approved the long-stalled Keystone XL pipeline. He moved to expand offshore drilling, reversed the Clean Water Rule, and withdrew from the Paris climate agreement.

That last action set off those who helped put the Paris agreement together. Former Secretary of State John Kerry on CNN last year, right after Trump pulled out.

KERRY: If the world is laughing today, it is also crying. It’s a laughing/crying at the president of the United States, who clearly doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He really is ignorant on the issue of climate change.  

Joining me now to talk about what’s happening at the EPA is Brent Fewell. He’s an environmental lawyer President Bush appointed deputy assistant administrator at EPA in 2004. He served into 2007. Brent, thank you for being here. Good morning.

BRENT FEWELL, GUEST: Good morning! Good to be with you.

EICHER: When President Trump took office, he immediately put in place a federal hiring freeze. Now, Congress hasn’t gone along with his desire to cut the EPA budget. It’s still about $8 billion.

So now that we’re 20 months into the Trump era, what’s been the net effect on the EPA workforce?

FEWELL: So the workforce continues to decline and that’s due to freezes in hirings, but also I would say attrition. It’s estimated that approximately 1,600 employees, EPA employees have retired since the Trump administration took over.

EICHER: Wow, and that’s out of roughly 15,000. That’s quite a lot. And I do remember predictions that government employees would quit in protest. Is it politically motivated?

FEWELL: Well, so there’s a couple of reasons. One, many of the employees at the EPA—many of them have actually been there since the EPA was started. So you have a number of EPA employees that are naturally retiring in any event, but it’s fair to say that many of the employees have disagreed with the policies and the direction of the administration on environmental policy. And because of that, I think many of them have decided it’s time for them to retire. So, I think most of those I would characterize as voluntary retirements.

EICHER: Speaking of departures, the highest-profile departure from EPA was the President Trump’s first choice for administrator, Scott Pruitt. He resigned back in July—almost three months ago now. Have things continued along the same path under the the acting administrator, Andrew Wheeler? It seems interesting that the White House hasn’t nominated a replacement for Pruitt.

FEWELL: Right. Andrew Wheeler is currently the acting administrator, and I would say that Mr. Wheeler is a conservative much like Mr. Pruitt was and is keeping in place many of the policies and actions of the former administrator. I would tell you they are different people, I know them both. And I think, quite frankly, although Scott Pruitt was engaged in some thoughtful reform at the agency, I think the number of “scandals” that had enveloped him, unfortunately, just was too much of a lightning rod. And I think the administration probably was best served with Scott stepping down.

EICHER: Let’s talk about some of those thoughtful reforms that Scott Pruitt had in mind. Are those continuing under Wheeler?

FEWELL: Well, they are, and just so folks understand, I was in the office of water, oversaw the Clean Water Act program and the Safe Drinking Water Act programs. And many of us who have worked there and continue to work there believe in the mission of the agency. It’s got a critically important mission to protect public health and the environment, but what I would tell you is I have long believed that the agency needed some significant reforms and particularly working more closely with the state. I think what you’re seeing is this administration rolling back, if you will, or getting rid of regulations where this administration feels like EPA may have overstepped its authority in the past, things like the Clean Power Plan and the regulations of CO2 emissions. There’s another one called the Clean Water Rule, which the Obama administration had initiated, which was being litigated by close to half of the U.S. states. You had a split, obviously, with the polarized politics of our country right now, and half red states, half blue states. You have many of the states who in the Obama administration felt like the EPA was over-regulating. Now you have those blue states suing EPA believing that they’re under-regulating and, frankly, do not want the agency to roll back some of the Obama era regulations.

EICHER: So instead of red and blue, I’m curious how you analyze this as a Christian believer. President Trump has sought to help industries and people hurt by EPA. Yet there’s also the issue of being good stewards of the natural resources God has given us. How do you balance the two?

FEWELL: Yeah, Nick, that’s something that I care about very deeply. So, as an individual who grew up in the church—my father was an evangelical preacher—I cared very much about wise stewardship and actually taking care of and protecting God’s creation. So, my perspective on these issues are very much colored by being raised in a Christian home, so what I would say is there is a strong interest in continuing that stewardship. And I know Administrator Wheeler very well, I know the top leadership at EPA, the political leadership, many of them who are my friends, and I have worked with in the past, and I can tell you they care very much about resources and balancing the issues of jobs and economy and environmental protection. I can also tell you that the administration is very interested and concerned about protecting public health. So we are bombarded every day with news media that basically looks at everything this administration is doing is bad—it’s bad for the environment, it’s bad for public health—and there’s just a fundamental disagreement between the last administration and this administration on how you achieve environmental protection and achieve public health protection. And while I don’t agree with everything this administration does, what I can tell you is we may actually see more environmental protection out of this administration than we did the prior one, simply because this administration is looking to the states in many cases to step up and do more. So devolving many of these programs back to the environmental states and local communities to care for these resources.

EICHER: Brent Fewell is an environmental lawyer and a former EPA official. Brent, thank you for your insights.

FEWELL: Absolutely, Nick. Great to be with you.

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) Andrew Wheeler, acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, appears before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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