Trump has announced that Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s Attorney General, is his choice to direct the Environmental Protection Agency. Déjà vu. I remember all too well when Ronald Reagan nominated James Watt as Secretary of the Interior. At the time, I was genuinely confused as to his nomination. How could someone opposed to environmentalism hold such a position? In my naivete, I believed that only environmentalists could lead natural resource and environmental agencies.
James Watt was not only a turning point for me, but also for the larger environmental movement and regulatory culture of the U.S. Watt signaled the rise of conservatives moving into the environmental arena and advocating anti-environmentalist agendas. Such individuals often had long histories working with fossil fuel, timber, mining, and other extractive industries and were intent on rolling back regulations. One could argue that the seeds for such a strategy were planted with the Powell Memo of 1971, which argued that corporate interests needed to go on the attack and challenge a political climate that threatened profits and power. This not only led to a proliferation of right-wing think-tanks, but ultimately the appointment of people like Watt.
Since then, despite enjoying widespread public support, environmental regulations, like all other spheres in U.S. society, have become highly politicized. Most Republicans, especially under Obama, have opposed almost all initiatives to protect the environment and public health under the guise of state’s rights, economic well-being, protecting jobs, etc. Indeed, one would scarcely know that the EPA was actually created under Republican President Nixon.
It is difficult to say if there has actually been a decrease in environmental regulation and quality across the board over the last several decades. Certainly there are plenty of spectacular environmental violations. Some of the more noteworthy examples include: Exide Technologies in Vernon, CA (entire 21st century); Flint Michigan’s drinking water (2015-16); the Elk River chemical spill in West Virginia (2014); the mining waste spill on the Animas River in Colorado (2015); the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (2010), and Volkswagon’s emissions fraud (2016). And these are just the ones that attracted public attention.[i]
There is concrete evidence that certain types of environmental laws have not been enforced. For example, in my work I have found that environmental justice initiatives have largely been a failure at the federal level. This can be seen through court rulings, a refusal to develop rules that would translate laws and executive orders into action, as well as a shift at the EPA towards negotiation and compromise, instead of enforcing the law. These all reflect a neoliberal era, in which “free-markets” are valued above all else.
Robert Kates and The Crime Report conducted an in-depth analysis of environmental crime, complete with a database where one can review the environmental histories of specific polluters. He found that there has, in fact, been a decrease in EPA criminal investigations through the 21st century. In effect, the EPA is not even bothering to investigate alleged violations. This decrease in investigations is undoubtedly due to numerous causes, including a lack of funding (which itself is a result of funding priorities), but there is also evidence that it is due to a hostile political climate in which EPA workers are discouraged from pursuing such actions for fear of incurring the wrath of hostile politicians. So, much for the “rule of law.”
Watt’s appointment only lasted from 1981-83. He resigned after an infamous quote in which he described the coal-advisory commission as follows, “'We have every kind of mixture you can have, I have a black, I have a woman, two Jews and a cripple. And we have talent.'' While it is a blessing that he did not last long, what is significant is that his appointment led to a major resurgence in the environmental movement. Many who agreed with and valued the environmental movement, but had never joined or simply taken it for granted, flocked to sign-up. They did not want to see public lands given away to mining companies or relaxing of air pollution enforcement.
Today we are facing a different challenge: Global warming. Pruitt, in a 2015 Congressional hearing refused to say whether he thought climate change was real. He has also taken the lead in suing the Obama administration over the Clean Power Plan. We can only hope that environmental and climate activists will come out in force once again to challenge this appointment.
No Donald Trump, the environment will NOT be “fine.”
For more on environmental justice and nonenforcment, see the following articles available under the “Publications” section of my website:
Pulido, Laura (2016) “Flint Michigan, Environmental Racism and Racial Capitalism” Capitalism Nature Socialism 27 (3): 1-16.
Pulido, Laura (2015) “Geographies of Race and Ethnicity I: White Supremacy vs White Privilege in Environmental Racism Research” Progress in Human Geography 39 (6): 1-9.
Pulido, Laura, Ellen Kohl, and Nicole-Marie Cotton (2016) “State Regulation and Environmental Justice: The Need for Strategy Reassessment” Capital Nature Socialism 27 (2): 12-31.