By Rhea Suh, Natural Resources Defense Council
Just how much damage can President Trump do to our environment and health? We’re finding out.
His Environmental Protection Agency chief, Scott Pruitt, is doing all he can to cripple the agency, eviscerate the commonsense safeguards we all depend on to protect clean water and air, and roll back real progress in fighting climate change and advancing clean energy. When not meeting with industrial polluters or jetting around on U.S. military aircraft at taxpayer expense, Pruitt can be found closeted in the $25,000 soundproof booth he ordered built to keep phone conversations secret from the public he’s paid to serve.
In his campaign to put polluter profits ahead of the public interest, Pruitt may get some help in the form of four new administration nominees equally miscast for their roles. Three of them would hold senior positions at the EPA―as if Pruitt can’t do enough harm by himself. The Senate should deny confirmation to all four.
As a lobbyist for the coal industry and other industrial polluters, Andrew Wheeler has spent the past eight years fighting efforts to cut the dangerous carbon pollution that’s driving climate change and trying to weaken rules that protect clean air. He learned the influence-peddling trade as an aide to Senator James Inhofe, the oil-state legislator who once brought a snowball onto the Senate floor to support his denial of climate change science. Wheeler been nominated to serve as Pruitt’s deputy, overseeing EPA operations day to day.
Next up is Michael Dourson, nominated to oversee chemical safety and pollution prevention at the EPA. Perhaps from that role you might guess which industries Dourson has served as a consultant for more than two decades. Again and again, he has hired himself out to do the bidding of the chemical, tobacco, and fossil fuel industries. He’s built a career out of pressing to make it easier for companies to expose people to unsafe levels of toxic chemicals linked to cancer, thyroid disease, and other maladies. He’s played down the risk of secondhand cigarette smoke in the workplace and toxic dust from piles of petroleum coke adjacent to residential communities. He’s even argued for unsafe levels of toxic chemicals in municipal drinking water supplies.
William Wehrum, nominated to head EPA efforts to protect clean air, has extensive experience in the field. Unfortunately, he’s devoted himself to weakening and undermining those protections and to thwarting their enforcement. In the six years Wehrum held senior posts in the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation under President George W. Bush, courts found the agency in violation of the Clean Air Act an astonishing 30 times. In 27 court losses, Wehrum’s shop was found to be retreating from the law’s basic protections of clean air and public health and unlawfully letting industry off the hook for polluting the air we breathe. After leaving the EPA, Wehrum built a lucrative Washington practice representing industry and trade associations in 34 separate lawsuits against the EPA. Most were meant to weaken or overturn clean air and health protections. This is not the man you’d trust with your next breath of air.
In the life-and-death contest between a healthy environment and polluter profits, Wheeler, Dourson, and Wehrum have devoted their professional lives to stacking the deck in favor of the dirtiest industries on the planet. The Senate has a responsibility to reject these nominees and insist on people who will advance the EPA mission to protect the environment and public health, not set back decades of needed progress.
Finally, just last week, Trump nominated career fossil fuel apologist and oil industry shill Kathleen Hartnett White to serve as the chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. A product of the landmark National Environmental Policy Act passed by Congress in 1969, the Council on Environmental Quality provides the president with overarching policy recommendations and agency coordination to promote the kind of livable environment we all want to leave our children. The council provides the vision behind responsible stewardship across the federal government.
White has a vision, all right, but it’s terminally disconnected from reality, as her exhaustive writings make clear. Climate change, in her world, is not an existential threat but, rather, the “secular religion” of some conspiratorial “Left.” Carbon dioxide isn’t harming the planet, she avers, and we can all thank the coal, gas, and oil industries for everything from running water to human rights.
“Fossil fuels dissolved the economic justification for slavery,” she wrote in her capacity as a senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, funded in part by ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Koch Industries. “The productivity made possible by fossil fuels led to the institutionalization of compassion and respect for the inalienable rights of each human individual.” Who needs the Constitution and Bill of Rights when we’ve got Peabody coal and the Koch brothers?
In her 2014 treatise “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels,” White equates burning gasoline with eating lunch. “Not unlike the combustion of fossil fuel in a car,” she writes, “the human body chemically ‘burns’ the energy in food.” Well, no. To “burn” the energy equivalent of one gallon of gas, you’d have to serve a ham sandwich and bag of chips to 50,198 people. To say we digest food the same way we burn fossil fuels is like comparing a jackrabbit to a blast furnace, both of which, after all, produce heat.
This view from the radical fringe informed White’s work for six years on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, where she was a reliable advocate for the oil, gas, and coal industries and a prickly opponent of assertive protection of clean water and air for her fellow Texans.
She’s also dismissed the promise of renewable energy as “diffuse, unreliable, and parasitic.” That would come as news to most of the Lone Star State, which got more than 15 percent of its electricity last year from wind turbines. These turbines employ more than 21,000 Texans and are helping to keep the family ranch and farm intact, providing some $60 billion in fees to Texas landowners last year alone.
It all adds up to a worldview that would be kooky if it weren’t so dangerous. Kathleen Hartnett White has no business presiding over the nation’s environmental portfolio―and the Senate has a duty to say so by rejecting this nominee as wholly unfit to serve.
The protection of our environment and health is not a game for hucksters and fools. It’s one of the more serious, if not solemn, responsibilities of government. In appointing these nominees, Trump has shown, once again, his contempt for the national interest and the public he’s sworn to serve.
Our U.S. senators have taken vows of their own to faithfully represent the people’s will. They have the duty to do so now by sending these nominees packing and calling on the White House to do right by the American people.