Unprecedented. That’s one way to describe the Trump presidency so far. When it comes to environmental policy, the new administration is trying for a total reset. The Allegheny Front usually reports on regional environmental issues, but we wanted to track the president’s efforts to do an about-face on the country’s environmental policies. So, we started a podcast. To date, we’ve produced 23 episodes of Trump on Earth. Here’s a sampling of some of them.
For our first episode, we had one big question: What could President Trump actually do? We turned to Jody Freeman for the answer. She’s a professor of environmental law at Harvard and a former Obama White House Energy and Climate Change advisor. We asked her to give us a kind of Civics 101 lesson because a lot of us have a pretty vague idea about the difference between a law and a regulation–aren’t they really the same thing? She broke it down for us:
LISTEN: Jody Freeman from the episode, “What Trump Can (and Can’t) Do”
So far, Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Scott Pruitt, has rolled back or delayed implementation of at least 30 rules and regulations which, by some accounts, has set a record for the early days of any EPA administrator. Just after his confirmation hearing, Trump on Earth talked to someone with insider knowledge about running the agency, and a Republican to boot. Christine Todd Whitman was EPA administrator under George W. Bush and a former governor of New Jersey.
LISTEN: Christine Todd Whitman from the episode, “What’s Up With Trump and the EPA”
Christine Todd Whitman was really candid with us, and she seemed cautiously optimistic about Administrator Pruitt. But since we spoke with her in January, that’s all changed. Whitman wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times in September, entitled: How Not to Run the E.P.A. In it she says she can’t be written off as part of the liberal resistance to Trump, “But the evidence is abundant of the dangerous political turn of an agency that is supposed to be guided by science.”
So far all indications are that science is taking a back seat to industry at Pruitt’s EPA. In March, he fired at least five scientists from the agency’s 18-member Board of Scientific Counselors. A spokesperson said they would be replaced with advisers “who understand the impact of regulations on the regulated community.” By all accounts, these changes have rattled EPA staff. Back in April, we spoke with Michael Cox, a career scientist at EPA who had just retired and on his way out, penned a blistering letter to Pruitt. Cox’s main issues were that the administration dismissed concerns about climate change, and that the budget proposal which President Trump submitted to congress cut EPA’s budget by 30 percent. But what really got to him was when President Trump came to the agency headquarters.
LISTEN: Michael Cox From the episode, “Standing Up for Science”
The EPA isn’t the only federal agency that has a big impact on the environment. The Interior Department controls nearly a third of nation’s land, and like the EPA, it’s also seeing big changes under the Trump administration.
In April, President Trump signed an executive order directing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review national monuments over 100,000 acres, designated since Bill Clinton was president. That includes two large swaths of land in southern Utah: Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments. Together they encompass more than 3 million acres. As national monuments, these federal lands have protections from commercial development and energy exploration. Just after President Trump announced his review of the monument designations, we invited Martin Nie, professor of natural resources policy, at the University of Montana on the podcast to learn more.
LISTEN: Martin Nie from the episode “Will This Land Still Be Your Land?”
Since we spoke to Martin Nie in May, the Washington Post reported that Zinke plans to scale back Bears Ears by almost 90 percent, and to reopen vast tracts of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans to commercial fishing. Also, Secretary Zinke has been in the headlines recently for saying that 30 percent of his staff is disloyal to President Trump and the flag. And, on Wednesday, a former top climate policy official at the Department of the Interior resigned, claiming that the Trump administration retaliated against him for talking publicly about the effects climate change will have on Alaska Native communities. Joel Clement was one of dozens of senior staff who were involuntarily reassigned in June, but he was the only person who spoke out. In his statement he wrote, “I am a scientist, a policy expert, a civil servant and a worried citizen. Reluctantly, as of today, I am also a whistleblower on an administration that chooses silence over science.” You can read his scathing resignation letter here.
So after producing 23 episodes of Trump on Earth, what are the major takeaways?
Julie Grant, one of the hosts of the program, says it has been illuminating to see how quickly the administration is working to change who the government represents. “And how much responsibility we have to keep up,” she adds, “to follow the changes, and to help make connections between the amount of pollution allowed in the air and water–and the safety to the environment and our health.”
Co-host Reid Frazier says a couple things have really caught his attention. “One is a new appreciation for the way our government works,” he says. “That no president can just overturn any law he or she chooses; that there are so many checks and balances on power in our government. For many years Democrats complained about this while their party controlled the White House. Now, they may be a relieved to see this in play.” Another thing Frazier notices is the politicization of the environment.
“It wasn’t so long ago that Republicans were concerned about climate change; it was Republican presidents who signed some of our most consequential environmental laws on the books.” Frazier says. “But within the span of 20 or so years, that all has changed, and we’re living in different times now. It’s been eye opening to plumb into the why of that trend as we’ve done this podcast.”
You can hear full interviews from all of our Trump on Earth podcasts on our website or wherever you get your podcasts. Trump on Earth is a co-production with Point Park University’s Environmental Journalism Program.