The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has emerged as an early and frequent critic of the Trump administration. In fact, it’s already filed a number of lawsuits over the White House’s attempts to rollback environmental regulations. And to keep citizens informed, NRDC also recently launched an online tool called Trump Watch to help people track changes in policy on a wide range of issues. Recently, we spoke with Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, program manager at NRDC, about how the group is currently handling the flurry of activity on environmental issues.
The Allegheny Front: One of the lawsuits NRDC has filed is over the “two-for-one” regulations executive order, where agencies would have to identify two regulations to cut for every new regulation that’s proposed. Help us understand what that would look like at an agency like EPA.
Susan Casey-Lefkowitz: Well, it’s such a ridiculous order. I mean, it goes beyond the president’s authority under the Constitution. You cannot just rewrite laws by personal fiat, and requiring a federal agency to violate its legal obligations to protect the public and carry out the proper process under law, just doesn’t make any sense. So I actually can’t see a way it would work in practice. It defies law and it defies common sense.
LISTEN: How NRDC is Pushing Back
SCL: Both [lawsuits] came about because the Trump administration put a freeze on new regulations. So, for example, EPA withdrew a rule designed to protect the public from mercury because of this freeze. To undo a safeguard or regulation that’s already in place, the EPA actually has to go through the full process that they would go through in setting the regulation in the first place. So to simply pull the rule is not following the process that we’ve set up in law. And similarly, with the rusty patched bumble bee’s endangered species listing, putting a freeze on that — especially for a critically endangered bumblebee that really can’t wait for protection — violates the law and the interest of the public in [protecting] species that are important to us. The rusty patched bumblebee has lost about 90 percent of its range in just 20 years. And bees are important for our agriculture and the ecosystem, and they’re under a lot of pressure right now.
AF: Climate change is a big priority for NRDC, and it’s obviously not for the Trump administration. For example, some of its appointees, including EPA chief Scott Pruitt, have hedged on how much humans are contributing to climate change. How much does this kind of thinking concern you, and how do you fight against it?
SCL: It’s very concerning to see climate denial at our highest levels of government. And in putting Scott Pruitt at the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, what Trump has done is put in place a man who has built his career [out of] siding with industrial polluters. And so now we’re looking ahead to a series of attacks on climate protections in the United States — for example, the Clean Power Plan, which was regulating, for the first time, climate-destroying emissions from power plants; and the Clean Car Standards, which was a very effective way of limiting climate pollution for cars and other vehicles. Both of those we expect will be attacked in the next two or three weeks. And luckily, because they are regulations that are in place — again, Trump just can’t undo them by fiat, nor can administrator Pruitt. They have to go through the full process of rule-making to undo them. So it’s going to be a long, hard fight that they’re facing because these are very popular rules. People want to move ahead with clean energy in our country. The public has overwhelming said that they care about a healthy climate and they care about clean energy. Going back to the dirty energy ways of the past and dependency on fossil fuels doesn’t make sense to most people — not when they know that renewable energy and energy efficiency are a path forward that we already see working in practice and makes economic sense. In fact, it’s a huge economic and jobs opportunity.
AF: Do you think people understand that connection between clean air and clean water and this rule-making or legislative action that’s happening in Washington now?
SCL: Our job is to help make that connection. When we look back, for example, at the time before the EPA was created, it was a time of intense pollution in our country. We had rivers catching on fire. We had smog and air pollution events where people died. That is not a time that people want to go back to. So connecting the dots between how important the Environmental Protection Agency and our air and water and climate protections are to having the kind of healthy environment we’ve gotten used to —that’s part of our job.
AF: We’re just seven weeks into this presidency and we’ve already seen a lot of developments on environmental issues. How are groups like yours going to be able to keep up the pressure?
SCL: One, litigation is going to be an important tool for us in the months and years to come. The other is, it’s more important than ever for members of Congress and members of the administration to be hearing from the public. So [that means] activating our members to get people out on the streets and have people calling, sending letters, going to town hall meetings. The next big events in Washington, D.C. are going to be the Scientists March on Earth Day in mid-April; and at the very end of April, at the 100-day mark of the Trump administration, there’s going to be the People’s Climate March, with sister marches around the country. And those are really important ways in which we’re taking a stand. And I think it’s sustainable to continue to show the administration that people are more activated and engaged.
AF: Finally, NRDC was one of the major sponsors of the Women’s March over inauguration weekend. How important is solidarity in this new era?
SCL: If President Trump is able to attack each of us and isolate us from each other, then it will be much harder for us to succeed than if we stand together. So the Women’s March was a time for us to very clearly say that NRDC sees the common links across so many different areas — whether it’s religious freedoms, racial issues, labor issues, gender issues. We all have a common link. We’re all trying to better our society and make sure America remains a democracy in which our voices can be heard, and we can continue to move ahead to a way of living that is what we want our children and grandchildren to be able to enjoy.
Susan Casey-Lefkowitz is program manager at the Natural Resources Defense Council.