Over the course of his four-year term, President Trump’s administration set about to deregulate all forms of government oversight, with the most famous instance of this being Executive Order 13771, which decreed that for each new government regulation, two existing regulations had to be eliminated. While many government agencies’ policies drastically changed due to this new order, one of the agencies with the most enthusiasm for these deregulation efforts was the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Under Scott Pruitt, not only were policies such as the Clean Water Act rolled back, but the agency also stopped enforcing many of the policies that they kept, with the agency having “collected 60% fewer fines.”
Comically enough, despite his seeming passion for deregulation, Pruitt had no qualms about introducing regulations regarding what kind of scientific research was appropriate for the agency to use, and these regulations saw science advisors being purged from the agency, and limited the types of research that could be used to inform EPA policies. When Pruitt’s tenure ended in 2018 after a series of scandals forced him to resign, his replacement, Andrew Wheeler, continued the work he started, while keeping a decidedly lower profile. Wheeler oversaw the implementation of the Affordable Clean Energy rule, which replaced the Obama era Clean Power Plan, and allowed upgraded coal plants to run more often, unequivocally making our air and energy less clean. By the end of the Trump administration there were 1200 fewer EPA employees than there were at the beginning.
While Biden has made it clear that a priority of his is addressing climate change, it is naive to think that he can simply reverse the damage done to the EPA as an agency, and the damage done by Trump’s EPA with a few executive orders and appointments. Michael Regan, Biden’s appointee will have to address the structural issues within the agency, work to undo the policies from the last four years, and try to implement new, expansive, and lasting environmental regulations. It is not enough to simply become Obama’s EPA 2.0, as the deregulation under Trump represents the culmination of 30 years of gradual loosening of restrictions and deference to the whims of polluters and industry groups.
While Trump’s appointment of Andrew Wheeler was rightfully lambasted as inappropriate due to his role as a former coal executive, the appointment and deference to industry executives was not a new phenomena under Trump, or solely a Republican issue, as many would like to pretend it is. For instance, a 2010 study found that “EPA communicated with industry representatives an average of 84 times before proposing any given new air quality rule” whereas they communicated with public interest groups just twice. Concerningly enough, the Biden appointee Regan has been criticized for his deference to industry executives with some complaining he was “too passive in pursuing polluters” during his time as North Carolina Secretary of the Environment, with this being one of the largest problems facing the EPA in terms of enforcement right now.
The Environmental Protection Agency was not magically ruined by Trump, rather, the policies implemented under Trump are the most extreme representation of decades of American politicians prioritizing corporations and profits over the health and safety of the American people and the environment. For the sake of our futures, Biden and Regan need to be willing to anger people in energy and high polluting industries, but at this point, it is unclear whether or not they, or any of our politicians, have the moral fortitude to do so.