posted December 08, 2016 09:31 PM
On Wednesday, Donald Trump announced that he will nominate Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt is a Republican from an energy-rich state, so his opinions on the EPA are about what one might expect — namely, that the EPA’s worthy purpose is not an excuse for holding America’s energy industry hostage. “Some believe that we don’t need an EPA, that they don’t have any role at all,” Pruitt told StateImpact Oklahoma in 2013. “I’m not one of those folks. I think the EPA can serve — and has served, historically — a very valuable purpose.” About the man who made this statement, former Obama consigliere Dan Pfeiffer tweeted, “At the risk of being dramatic, Scott Pruitt at EPA is an existential threat to the planet.”
Having long ago abandoned more traditional forms of eschatology, progressives are greeting Pruitt as a sort of ecological antichrist. Environmentalism is their ersatz religion (complete with its own tantric rituals), and the EPA is its Magisterium, charged with promulgating sacra doctrina.
This has been more true during recent years than ever before. Under President Obama — who, recall, suggested that his presidential nomination in 2008 would eventually be recognized as “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal” — the EPA has gone far beyond “protecting” the environment from legitimate dangers, seeking instead to claim jurisdiction over increasing swaths of the American landscape and economy to ward off the imminent perils of “climate change.”
To do this, it has conducted esoteric readings of statutory language to give itself regulatory power beyond what Congress ever intended to allocate. The 1970 Clean Air Act, a landmark piece of legislation that has been remarkably successful in reducing lead, carbon monoxide, and other forms of pollution, is now being used to impose air-quality demands on manufacturers that some national parks don’t meet. The EPA has also used the Clean Air Act to justify its 2015 Clean Power Plan, a massive regulation that would set a cap on carbon pollution by power plants (and threaten the existence of many of them). The argument that the EPA has that regulatory power is sufficiently constitutionally suspect that the Supreme Court has halted implementation of the rule.
The 1972 Clean Water Act has been similarly exploited. The Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) regulation initially granted the federal government jurisdiction over navigable waters — that is, what you might take a boat down. But the Obama-era EPA has sought to expand the definition such that ditches and potholes would fall under federal jurisdiction. The rule is now being challenged by various parties.
Predictably, this zealotry has led to corruption. In 2012, the House Oversight Committee held a hearing on the EPA’s “sue and settle” tactic, in which environmental groups sue the EPA to demand a regulation, lawyers from the parties come to an arrangement behind closed doors, and a federal court blesses the agreement, making the EPA legally bound to go through the rulemaking process. Then, when critics ask why the EPA is suddenly seeking to impose the rule in question, the agency pleads that it is bound by law to do so. The “sue and settle” scheme has led to major policy changes, among them the Regional Haze Regulations that seek to regulate air in certain parts of Oklahoma and Texas, and against which both Pruitt and Texas attorney general Ken Paxton have filed suit. Meanwhile, in the realm of more overt dishonesty, the Government Accountability Office ruled last year that the EPA had violated prohibitions against “propaganda and grassroots lobbying” by using social media to encourage the public to support the WOTUS rule.
The Obama administration has been willing to impose massive costs on taxpayers to stave off an imaginary doomsday.
All of this is in the service of preventing that ever-looming but never-arriving “climate change” apocalypse, the most concrete indication of which appears to be — maybe — the occasional lean polar bear. A sizable minority of climate scientists remain skeptical about prevailing climate models, about the place of human activity in climate change, and about whether adaptive measures would make a significant difference. Even the most optimistic estimates of the effects of President Obama’s much-fêted global-warming accord suggest that the maximum effect would be a 0.2°C reduction in global temperatures.
But the Obama administration has been willing to impose massive costs on taxpayers to stave off an imaginary doomsday. The effect of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, combined with the $10.25-per-barrel oil tax that President Obama proposed last spring, would be the equivalent of raising the tax burden of households in the lowest quintile — disproportionately affected by changes in energy costs — by more than 160 percent.
This is what comes of misplaced moral fervor. Seeking to preserve America’s natural beauty, promote public health, and encourage the prudent use of limited natural resources are noble causes. But so is aiming to provide more affordable energy to all Americans. Over the past eight years, though, the moral fervor of environmental crusaders has become oppressive, and the EPA has adopted the position of EPA official Al Armendariz, who said in 2010 that the agency’s approach to oil and gas companies should be “like when the Romans conquered the villages in the Mediterranean. They’d go into little villages in Turkish towns, and they’d find the first five guys they saw and crucify them.”
In an administration saturated by ideological extremism, the Obama-era EPA has been scandalously radical. The result isn’t a healthier environment; it’s increased antagonism between the interests of environmentalists and industry. The EPA should be a mediator, aiming to balance as well as possible the competing interests of the many stakeholders in questions of environmental and energy policy.
Scott Pruitt is likelier than any of his Obama-era predecessors to let all of those stakeholders come to the table. That’s not a “threat to the planet.” That’s good government.
— Ian Tuttle is the Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow at the National Review Institute.