The ‘Deconstruction’ of the EPA

In this week’s episode of the Trump on Earth podcast, we dig into the potential fallout of big cuts that could be coming at the Environmental Protection Agency. (Photo: Louis Vest via Flickr)

Trumpism may not be the most coherent of political philosophies. But when White House strategist Steve Bannon recently told a crowd of conservative activists that one of their major goals is “deconstruction of the administrative state,” he brought into focus a theme that may very well come to define a large part of the Trump era. In fact, we’re already starting to see it take shape at the Environmental Protection Agency.

The budget President Trump outlined for Congress last week called for trimming the EPA’s funding by a quarter and cutting staff by several thousand. Where the agency would be cut the deepest and how it might adapt are still anyone’s guess. But Liz Purchia Gannon, who worked for the EPA during the Obama administration, says that such cuts won’t come without real-world consequences.

“Those numbers sound really scary,” Purchia Gannon says. “But when you start to hear the stories of the work the agency does all around the country that often goes unnoticed, that’s when you really start to feel the impact. For example, if you think Flint was just a one-off case, I think we should prepare for a lot more of those in the future. If you get budget cuts on the federal level, and you’re seeing systematic cuts on the state level, you’re not going to have the resources and people to ensure our drinking water is safe. The VW scandal never would have fully come about without the staff in the Ann Arbor, Michigan lab, who were doing the testing on these vehicles to ensure they were playing by the rules and not cheating on their air emissions. And the Office of Research and Development does incredibly important work in advising cities and states on how to address issues like toxic algal blooms in Toledo, where drinking water is being impacted. And if you don’t have an agency with an enforcement staff and ability to research and dig into these issues, we’ll see more cases. It’s the work of the agency in these regional offices that’s helping states address what’s going on.”

Another major wildcard in the situation is Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general who made a name for himself suing the agency he now finds himself leading. But recently, EPA Secretary Pruitt has struck a somewhat softer tone, arguing for the importance of keeping key EPA programs like brownfield redevelopment and grants for improving local water infrastructure.

“I think a lot of people were expecting him to come in with a sort of ‘slash-and-burn’ attitude for the EPA,” says Emily Holden, who covers energy and climate issues for E&E News. “So on the one hand, it’s maybe been surprising for some people to hear him coming out and protecting these really particular state grant programs. He was really making the rounds and trying to make the very specific point that he did not agree with the President’s proposed initial budget. And last week, he showed up to a U.S. mayors conference and said sort of, ‘Bring me your success stories, so I can go to the White House and tell them how you use this money so I can try to protect it.’ So it’s been interesting that it’s been an intentional public campaign to show that he doesn’t agree with all of these cuts.”

We should note that the EPA budget is still in what’s called a “passback” stage. That essentially means it’s a first draft of the budget that the administration is shopping around to various agencies. The White House is expected to send its full budget to Congress next week.

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Want to hear more? Get complete analysis from E&E’s Emily Holden and former EPA communications director Liz Purchia Gannon on this week’s episode of the Trump on Earth podcast.