By John O’Grady
For those of us who care about public health and the environment, 2017 was the worst year on record. It was a year filled with science denial and public safety reversals.
Frankly, it all started with the National Park Service. On Jan. 20, 2017, minutes after Donald Trump was inaugurated as president, the NPS tweeted a photo comparing Trump’s crowds with those at Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Trump’s criticism of the head of the National Park Service triggered a “resistance” movement of environmental social media accounts claiming authorship by “rogue” and anonymous U.S. government representatives.
On Jan. 24, President Trump kept his pledge to be the fossil fuel president by issuing an executive order clearing the way for the approval of the Dakota Access pipeline, previously held up under Obama. On the same day, the White House scrubbed its web pages of any mention of climate change.
For the next four months, Trump’s efforts to roll back Obama-era environmental regulations came fast and furious. On Feb. 17, the Senate confirmed Scott Pruitt as EPA administrator. As Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt sued the EPA 14 times and led a 27-state lawsuit against the Clean Power Plan, challenging its legality and claiming that lower emission levels would impose an undue burden, while maintaining a cozy relationship with the oil and gas industry. On Feb. 28, Trump announced review of the Clean Water Rule, which determines which streams are regulated under the Clean Water Act, signaling a Trump-era erosion of statutory protections for wetlands.
Meanwhile, EPA’s Office of Science and Technology removed the word “science” from its mission statement, and two days later, Pruitt cast doubt on carbon dioxide’s role in climate change as “very challenging.”
On the ides of March, Pruitt and Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chaoannounced EPA’s reexamination of the Obama-era fuel economy standards for vehicles with model years between 2022-25, enormously effective regulations that would lower vehicle emissions. As the administration made America more welcoming for oil and gas production, the State Department granted a permit for the contentious Keystone XL pipeline construction on March 24.
Then, Trump announced withdrawal of the Clean Power Plan, foretelling doom for continued U.S. participation in the Paris climate agreement. The next day, Pruitt rejected a petition to ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos on some 40,000 U.S. farms, which EPA scientists confirmed was associated with brain damage at low exposures. On March 31, Pruitt once again denied that humans cause climate change.
On April 7, Pruitt started the second quarter re-assigning EPA climate staffers, and barely a week later he announced EPA’s “back-to-basics” agenda as “protecting the environment by engaging with state, local, and tribal partners to create sensible regulations that enhance economic growth.” The next day, Pruitt called for withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. Days later, the Interior Department scrubbed climate change information online. On April 22, scientists gathered in Washington for the March for Science. On April 28, EPA wiped its website clean of climate science information and Trump signed an executive order to roll back bans on offshore oil and gas drilling in the Arctic, the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean.
Despite international public outcry, the administration, continued attacks on science. In early May, EPA dismissed members of the Board of Scientific Counselors, an 18-member advisory board that reviews EPA scientist research. Trump’s 2018 proposed budget slashed the EPA’s budget by 31 percent — a loss of 3,200 jobs. Somehow, the final budget is identical to the blueprint floated by the administration in March, which was pronounced dead on arrival by Congress.
June 1 brought the biggest environmental news of the year: the U.S. was officially withdrawing from the Paris climate deal, abandoning 194 other countries that promised to curb planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions and relinquishing our leadership on the issue back to the world’s most dangerous polluter, China.
On July 25, EPA’s Superfund Task Force, led by Pruitt’s former banker, Albert Kelly, (whom the FDIC banned from banking for life for violating laws or regulations), announced 42 recommendations, all without producing a paper trail.
A week later, EPA abandoned its decision to delay Obama’s regulations on ozone. On Aug. 22, Trump suspended a study of health risks to residents near mountaintop removal coalmine sites. On Sept.14, the House passed a 2018 spending bill, a disaster for EPA scientists and engineers, cutting the appropriations for staff by 24 percent.
On Oct. 9, Pruitt declared that EPA will either eliminate or scale back the Clean Power Plan and claimed “the war on coal is over.” The Clean Power Plan mandated U.S. fossil fuel carbon emissions be cut by 32 percent from 2005 by 2030, shrinking the U.S. carbon footprint. On Oct. 30, in another unprecedented move to reduce the influence of non-profit scientists on EPA, Pruitt announced new ethical rules forbidding those serving on EPA’s science boards from receiving federal grants.
On Dec. 18, Trump announced climate change is no longer a national security threat. This ended decades of Pentagon policy and contradicted Defense Secretary James Mattis, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and four other former top military commanders who were quoted in the defense bill Trump signed last week saying things such as, “Climate change is a national security issue.”
As the White House and Congress celebrated after enacting the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the scientists who Pruitt banned from receiving grants when serving on advisory boards sued EPA over the policy. On Dec. 22, Trump signed tax reform into law, which includes a provision that opens the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling.
So, there you have it. At years end, Pruitt continues to challenge the two central Obama-era rules, the Clean Power Plan and the Clean Water Rule, while Trump doubles down to make his children and grandchildren’s generations more fossil fuel reliant, and isolates us from the rest of the world on climate leadership. How will it turn out? Stay tuned in 2018.
John O’Grady is president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) National Council of EPA Locals #238 representing over 9,000 bargaining unit employees at the U.S. EPA nationwide.