In a sharp break with scientific consensus, the new administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that carbon dioxide’s role in the Earth’s changing climate remains unclear.
In his previous role as Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt repeatedly sued the EPA over its regulations, notably the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. Now a leading U.S. environmental official, his backpedaling claims follow reports this week of the new presidency’s eagerness to deemphasize environmental regulation in its first budget—with possible big impacts. Here's a look at what that could mean for the planet and public health.
U.S. and international scientists have repeatedly connected rising carbon emissions to the Earth’s changing climate. A 2014 review by the National Academy of Sciences, the United States’ preeminent scientific advisory body, observed that the Earth’s warming since the 1970s “is mainly a result of the increased concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouse gases.”
Yet in an interview on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on March 9, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt muddied the waters. "I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there's tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact,” he said. “So no, I would not agree that it's a primary contributor to the global warming that we see."
Already, lawmakers are moving to strike down Obama-era rules that restricted the flaring of methane—a potent greenhouse gas—from natural gas wells on public lands. And language on the EPA’s website has changed repeatedly to deemphasize climate change—and, in one instance, the importance of science-based rulemaking.
In addition, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke rescinded an eleventh-hour Obama prohibition of lead ammunition in national wildlife refuges. President Trump also has directed Pruitt to replace the Waters of the United States rule, an Obama-era interpretation of the Clean Water Act that extended federal protections to some kinds of streams and wetlands. (Read more about the Waters of the United States rule.)
Proponents of the reversals argue that these regulations were poorly supported by existing statute, painfully costly, or redundant. What’s more, the Trump administration has made the U.S. fossil-fuels industry key to its pledge to revitalize the U.S. economy—moving to rescind Obama-era restrictions on coal leases in the process.
Deep Cuts for EPA’S Budget
Pruitt’s controversial comments come on the heels of reports of budget cuts to U.S. science and environmental agencies, as the Trump administration seeks to carve out $54 billion in additional annual funding for the Department of Defense.
The leaked documents are “passbacks,” preliminary budget guidance from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB). They are not final budget proposals, and any final say rests with Congress, which has already expressed concern. But if the rumored cuts were to be passed, they would slash agencies’ enforcement capacity, as well as cut a battery of programs, many of which directly impact public health and safety.
The EPA is rumored to be facing a 25-percent cut of its $8.1-billion budget, as well as a 20-percent reduction of the agency’s workforce. The alleged specifics of the budget, first reported in The Oregonian, were leaked to the press by Bill Becker, the executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, who says he received a copy from a confidential source within the U.S. government. (In an emailed statement, EPA spokesperson Julia Valentine said that the agency had no comment.)
“Here, they’re not even trying to hide anything,” says Becker in a phone interview. “It’s a triple whammy: cutting EPA, cutting very effective programs, and cutting substantially the state and local governmental programs.”
The passback reportedly details the elimination of at least 38 different programs that Becker describes as “generally bipartisan, widely effective, [and] non-controversial”—including support for Alaskan villages threatened by climate change, water-quality tests for beaches, and the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which produces the country’s most comprehensive reports on climate change’s impacts on the U.S.
Most troubling, says Becker, are the more than $600 million in state grants that the EPA could lose under the proposal—at a time that Pruitt has promised will bring greater state primacy over environmental regulation.
For instance, the budget proposes eliminating EPA grants under the Diesel Emissions Reductions Act, which help fund the replacement and retrofitting of old diesel engines. From 2009 to 2013, the program dispensed $520 million in grants, which the EPA estimates will reduce smog-forming nitrogen oxide emissions by 312,500 tons—and prevent between 750 and 1,700 premature deaths.
If enacted, the cuts would come at a time of already tightened belts for the EPA. In 2016, the agency had 15,376 employees, its smallest staff since 1989, and after adjusting for inflation, today’s EPA spends roughly what it did in 1987.
At 2016 levels, the cuts would fund the U.S. Department of Defense for just over 30 hours.
Targeting Climate and Weather Data
The U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a major U.S. weather and climate-science agency, is also said to face possible major cuts, to the tune of $990 million, reports the Washington Post. At 2016 levels, that 17-percent reduction would run the U.S. Department of Defense for just under 15 hours—and could hamper U.S. weather forecasting and monitoring of natural disasters, not to mention studies of climate change, say weather and climate experts.
“If you rely on TV weather forecasts, use a weather app, eat fish, enjoy boating, or claim your status as an Earthling, these cuts potentially have implications for you,” Marshall Shepherd, a University of Georgia meteorology professor and former president of the American Meteorological Society, wrote for Forbes.
“It’s like giving a 15-year-old kid a whole bunch of coffee, and then giving them a machete and asking them to do surgery,” says David Titley, a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral and Penn State University meteorology professor. “There’s a lot of a hacking and slashing.”
The passback reportedly nixes a planned $83-million NOAA ship that would have been used for widespread ocean surveys, as well as cuts the agency’s $400-million Polar Follow-On program, a pair of polar-orbiting weather satellites scheduled to launch in 2024 and 2026. Another $100 million in unspecified cuts to the agency’s satellite service could come at the expense of the agency’s climate data centers.
“It does not mean that satellites will fall out of the sky… [but] they’re really attacking NOAA’s future capability, frankly, without a plan to replace it,” says Titley, who served as NOAA’s chief operating officer starting in 2012. “It’s take-the-money-and-run.”
What’s more, the passback proposes a dizzying array of cuts to programs that maintain and protect the country’s waterways, such as the National Ocean Service, which continually recharts the nation’s ever-shifting coastlines, and a 26-percent cut to NOAA’s research budget. It also proposes eliminating Sea Grant, a popular $73-million program that supports pragmatic research on the nation’s bodies of water.
“We’re hopeful that the administration learns more about the benefits of Sea Grant and the kinds of things it does,” says Jeffrey Reutter, an Ohio State University professor who for years served as the head of Ohio’s Sea Grant program. “The program does true, meaningful science that is almost immediately usable by people.”
Putting Water at Risk?
For Reutter, who has studied Lake Erie since the early 1970s, fights over the agencies’ budgets are no mere abstraction. He says that if enacted, the proposed cuts to EPA and NOAA would directly harm efforts to clean up Lake Erie, which provides drinking water to some 11 million people.
The proposed EPA budget, for instance, includes a 97-percent reduction in spending to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which funds and coordinates research of lakes’ ecosystems and supports efforts to restore coastal habitats. At 2016 levels, the $290-million cut would fund the U.S. Department of Defense for less than five hours.
Cuts to NOAA wouldn’t help matters. Reutter says that he relies on NOAA’s weather satellites for vital lakewide data, and Sea Grant, he adds, plays an important role in rehabilitating coastal habitats. In the 1980s, Sea Grant support led to the creation of artificial reefs along the city’s Lake Erie coastline, recycling rubble from a demolished football stadium. The reefs have provided habitat to local fish—and have created lucrative fishing spots. As of 1992, the reefs yielded annual benefits nearly three times greater than the cost of their construction.
Rick Hobrla, an official with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Great Lakes Management Unit, concurs. He says that Sea Grant support is vital to educating Michigan’s public about agricultural runoff, an issue of paramount importance to the Great Lakes’ health.
Since the 1990s, phosphorus inputs to Lake Erie have spiked as a result of agriculture, spurring an outburst of toxic algal blooms not seen since the 1970s. The resulting threats to drinking water are real: In August 2014, the city of Toledo, Ohio, was forced to order its residents not to drink or boil the city’s drinking water, after an algal bloom on Lake Erie contaminated it with the toxin microcystin.
When asked if the Trump administration’s proposed cuts would increase the likelihood of Toledo-like incidents, Reutter did not mince words. “I think that’s absolutely true,” he says. “We can’t manage, protect, and restore Lake Erie without EPA, NOAA, and Sea Grant. We just can’t do it.”