EPA Grant Freeze Will Thwart New Research and Cost-Effective Policy

Trump is more likely to be successful in rolling back regulations that are in still in the courts or have not reached the federal register instead of those already in place, says Kenneth Gillingham

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Story Transcript

KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Kim Brown in Baltimore.

Just days after taking the oath of office and becoming the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump is wasting no time in making his presence felt on a variety of agencies across the federal government including the Environmental Protection Agency, where his nominee, Attorney General from Oklahoma, Scott Pruitt, is awaiting a confirmation vote in the Senate. However, Donald Trump’s administration had originally sent out a memorandum to the Environmental Protection Agency ordering them to scrub all mention of climate change and global warming information off of their website. But we’re getting some updated details about this, that this is sort of in flux and this has changed according to E&E News, the Trump administration has told employees of the EPA to stand down on that order to eliminate climate change information from the EPA.gov website.

To talk about this further, we’re joined by Kenneth Gillingham. He is an assistant professor of economies at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, with his research focusing on energy economics and policy. Kenneth, we appreciate you joining us back here on The Real News.

KENNETH GILLINGHAM: Thank you, Kim. Great to speak with you.

KIM BROWN: Kenneth, what do you make of this about-face, as it were, pretty early on from the Trump administration. Initially… well, first of all, scrubbing any mention of climate change from Whitehouse.gov. But initially giving the order to EPA employees to ‘dead’ certain information and details and research on the EPA website about climate change, but now seemingly walking that back. What is your take-away about this recent turn of events here?

KENNETH GILLINGHAM: Well, looking at what we’ve seen over the past few days, the White House website, any mention of climate and many other social priorities of the Obama administration have all been scrubbed, or removed. EPA pages have been changed. The DoE website front page has been changed. All deeply troubling. It’s not unusual for an administration to freeze things or slow things down at the very beginning, but this is quite extreme and unprecedented in my view.

But now we see this turnaround, if you will. And I have to speculate about whether that turnaround is actually because of the hard work by many organizations, whether it be activists, university professors and others who’ve spent a huge amount of time downloading massive amounts of data from all — from the Department of Energy’s website, … website, EPA’s website, in order to have it preserved. And that makes you wonder whether the political appointees on the transition team and others in the EPA realized that they’re not going to be stopping or muzzling the currently existing science. It does raise troubling questions about what’s going to happen going forward.

KIM BROWN: Talk about the importance of the EPA data to you as an economist and for scientists across the country who study climate change.

KENNETH GILLINGHAM: Yeah, that’s a great question. For both air pollution, water pollution, climate change, the EPA has massive databases of data on emissions, on water quality, on air quality, throughout the United States. This is incredibly important if you’re trying to understand how given plants, for example, create emissions that then go and go over other areas. If you want to try and understand how policy, how different policies in the past have impacted emissions. If you want to really do any analysis in the energy and environment world, EPA data is just critical.

KIM BROWN: Many outside of the field don’t really know about the grants that the EPA gives out, so tell us about that program and the importance of that work, because that was also part of the Trump administration edict to the EPA, that they had to cease with any disbursement of any additional grants to scientists and to people who were studying climate change.

KENNETH GILLINGHAM: There’s a freeze of all EPA grants. Now, this includes grants to universities, grants to, say, Flint, Michigan, to work on water quality there, grants across the board. This is an across the board freeze on grants. It’s not clear when it will be lifted or how it will be lifted or to what extent it will be lifted, but that’s what we’ve seen so far. And when I see that, I have to just look at the current… the new White House website, with America’s Energy First plan, or an America First Energy Plan is what they call it. And in that, they actually have the wording saying “Protecting clean air and clean water, conserving our natural habitats, preserving our natural resources, and natural reserves and resources will remain a high priority.” And that’s on the new administration’s website. So, given that, one would hope that they would lift this freeze at some point, because these grants are incredibly critical for protecting human health, for making sure that the frontier of knowledge in these areas continues to move forward.

We all want to develop sensible, cost-effective policies. That can’t be done without research in these areas. So it’s worrisome that all grants have been frozen in a way that I’ve never seen before in previous administrations from any… going back many, many years. We hope that that freeze will be lifted.

KIM BROWN: Kenneth, let’s look at this from both sides, if we can. The Environmental Protection Agency, obviously, studies air quality, water quality, pollution levels and climate change across the globe, and obviously here in the United States. But on the downside, many would say that the EPA is a bit of a toothless agency. You mentioned Flint, Michigan. Obviously, the ball was dropped at the local level, state level and the federal level when it came to the switching of the water source for Flint, Michigan, but the EPA was involved. I mean, they did have people there who were aware of the situation, and another situation that happened in Colorado with the Gold King Mine wastewater spill that went into I believe it was the Durango River. I believe that was also a project that the EPA had some oversight on, and it was disastrous.

So does the EPA need to be reined in, either through budgetary means or through whatever means that President Trump is taking – it’s hard to say what steps he’s actually taking because they could obviously change from hour to hour or from day to day. But does the EPA need some tightening up in your opinion?

KENNETH GILLINGHAM: I think you bring up some very important cases of mistakes that were made. There’s no question that mistakes were made in Flint, Michigan. There’s also no question that in Colorado, that spill was a mistake.

But the EPA is a large organization. They have thousands of employees. Their regional offices, the leadership in Washington, D.C., is not aware of every single little thing going on in every single place. That said, they need to have constraints and make sure that they’re aware of things going on. Now the type of reining in that we’ve been hearing about that Scott Pruitt and others have been talking about is not about making sure that the EPA is more careful about water quality or making sure that mistakes don’t happen. It’s really about scrapping regulations. It’s really about making sure that the waters of the US, that the Clean Air Act, that using the Clean Air Acts to regulate carbon dioxide emissions so anything under the Climate Action Plan, the Clean Power Plan, all of that is scrapped as much as they can scrap –- which of course, they can’t scrap it all for legal reasons -– but that’s very, very different of a way of reining in than trying to make the EPA more careful about how it does its work.

So the bottom line is that all of these regulations that I’m referring to, they all passed the cost/benefit test. And, in fact, the Office of Management and Budget(?) notes that and when he complained about the Office of Management and Budget, if you wish, but they note that the EPA regulations are some of the most cost-effective in terms of the benefits far exceeding the costs. Human health benefits, water quality benefits, these benefits far exceed the costs for on average all these regulations. Which makes you really worry, why are we scrapping regulations where it’s pretty clear that the benefits exceed the costs by a large measure? Which makes me answer your question -– getting back to your question at the beginning -– with a clear no, I don’t think the EPA needs a reining-in when their regulations where the benefits exceed the costs.

KIM BROWN: What in your opinion, what does this look like if President Trump is allowed to have his way and allowed to dismantle many environmental protections and regulations that he claims is having job-killing effects on the American economy? Like, what does the end of that rainbow look like, if Trump is able to repeal all of the regulations that he wants?

KENNETH GILLINGHAM: Well, it’s a great question. The short of it is it’s going to be very difficult to repeal all of the regulations. In fact, pretty much impossible. It takes a lot of work to create a regulation, and once it’s in the federal register, it takes a lot of work to take it out. So, where… I think where you’re going to see the focus in the next six months and more, even in the next few years, is going to be on regulations that have not reached the federal register yet, so they haven’t been codified yet. Or regulations that are in the courts, and so there, it’s actually not very difficult for them to just not defend the regulation that’s already in the courts. And they’re going to use that so that the Clean Power Plan is an example of this, where it’s very likely that the Clean Power Plan, which is the first mandatory regulation on greenhouse gases in the power sector in the United States will very likely not come into effect, at least in the next four years. Where we’re going to have more trouble is on rules that have already taken effect. So water of the US is another one that falls into that category. And those regulations, they have to write a new regulation and/or Congress needs to pass a law. Both of which take an enormous amount of work and an enormous amount of time.

So my view, in the end, is that we will see some roll-back. There’s no doubt that this new administration is dedicated to trying to roll back as much as they can. But I wouldn’t underestimate how much work it takes to either make a first regulation or make a replacement regulation, and maybe that gives us some comfort.

KIM BROWN: We’ve been speaking with Kenneth Gillingham. He is an assistant professor of economics at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, with his research focusing on energy economics and policy, and in 2015 and 2016 he served as the senior economist for energy in the environment at the White House Council of Economic Advisors. Kenneth, we appreciate your expertise today. Thanks a lot.

KENNETH GILLINGHAM: Thank you.

KIM BROWN: And thanks for watching The Real News Network.

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