From Kumbaya to Battleground: How’d the EPA get so political?

The EPA used to enjoy bipartisan support
EPA are we better off?
New York City skyline after 40 years of the EPA EPA

NoteThis is part three of a four-part series about the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The agency, its policies, and the science that underpins those regulations have been under scrutiny in recent weeks. In fact, the agency is in danger of being drastically cut back or dismantled entirely. You can learn more about that by reading part one and part two, as well viewing a gallery of photos of what America looked like in the early days of the EPA. This week we’ll focus on how the agency and its science—which used to benefit from bipartisan support—became fractured along political lines.

The White House is preparing to reduce the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by 25 percent, according to reports published earlier this week by Reuters and The Washington Post. In addition to targeting climate change related programs by 70 percent, the administration plans to eliminate 20 percent of EPA employees.

An agency whose total operating budget is .2 percent of the federal budget—and whose mandate is protecting human health and the environment—doesn’t seem like an obvious choice for fiscal reduction. After all, most Americans, regardless of political affiliation, tend to support environmental protections. Increasingly, Americans even agree on climate change, with 70 percent of Americans believing that climate change is real, according to Yale’s Program on Climate Change Communication. In fact, there are only two counties in the country—Grant County, West Virginia and Emery County, Utah—where less than half of residents believe in climate change.

climate map
Yale Climate Opinion Maps—U.S. 2016 Peter Howe, Matto Mildenberger, Jennifer Marlon and Anthony Leiserowitz

But while the depths of the White House’s proposed cuts are unusual, that a Republican administration would move to curtail the EPA surprises no one who has paid even casual attention to 21st-century American politics. Yes, the EPA was created by a Republican president, but bipartisan support of clean air and water proved to be a 20th century trend. Increasingly, the EPA’s mission of protecting human health and the environment has been bifurcated along political lines. So much so, in fact, that you might assume that support of the EPA has always been a liberal battlecry. But you’d be wrong.

“Under Reagan,” said former EPA employee Eric Schaeffer, “environmental issues were more regional than partisan. If you were John Dingell from Detroit, well, you were dragging your feet on car and truck standards. On the other hand, Dingell was great on enforcement and on hazardous waste legislation.”

“There was Guy Guy Molinari, a Republican from Westchester,” Schaeffer added, “if you’ve ever seen pictures of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, he looked like him. He always had this kind of satiny jacket, big white hair. He was very green—the environment was a big issue for him.”

Schaffer joined the EPA under George H.W. Bush and served through both of Clinton’s terms into George W. Bush’s administration. In 2001, Attorney John Ashcroft awarded Schaeffer, then the director of the EPA’s office of regulatory enforcement, the Justice Department’s John Marshall Award for public service for his work on settling oil refinery cases. And yet, this dedicated public servant only lasted a short time into George W. Bush’s administration. He wasn’t the only one.

“In 2001, I stood in a barn in Missouri facing fifty small family farmers,” said Michelle Merkel at a 2015 TEDx talk in New York City. Merkel was an EPA lawyer at the time, and she and local farmers were suing nearby Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), more commonly known as ‘factory farms’, to get them to clean up their act. CAFOs in the region were causing massive fish kills, harming ground water, and trashing the land with piles of animal waste, writhing with rat-tailed maggots.

rat-tailed maggot
Rat-tailed maggots are especially adapted to survive in polluted waters. University of Florida

It wasn’t Merkel’s first time at the farm, but it was one of her last visits as an EPA lawyer. “In the middle of the litigation, right after the Bush administration came into office,” said Merkel, “I walked into work one day and I was ordered to settle the case or lose it altogether. I was also ordered to stop every other investigation against a CAFO.” She quit shortly thereafter and now works for Food and Water Watch, where she sues the federal government into following its own laws.

Like Merkel, Schaeffer quit because the Bush administration wanted to let energy companies off of the hook from complying with environmental regulations—in this case, those related to air pollution. When fully applied, the regulations would have eliminated 10,800 deaths, 5,100 hospital visits, and 1.5 million lost work days per year. But those changes would have cut into power plant profits, so they fought hard against the change—and the Bush administration listened, despite the costs to the American people.

In June, Russel E. Train—EPA administrator under both Nixon and Ford—wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed that, “the E.P.A. was established as an independent agency in the executive branch, and so it should remain. There appears today to be a steady erosion in its independent status… the interest of the American people lies in having full disclosure of the facts, particularly when the issue is one with such potentially enormous damage to the long-term health and economic well-being of all of us.”

Schaeffer’s resignation letter, which was reprinted in full by Grist and in part by the New York Times, stated:

Reading this through the lens of 2017, it’s easy to come up with a canned rebuttal to Schaefer’s statements: those regulations would cost jobs. In the 15 years since Schaefer walked out of the EPA, any report that suggests an industry is polluting to a degree requiring regulatory action is shut down with the phrase “job killer,” as though the fact that regulations kill jobs is a universal truth, like gravity or death.

It isn’t.

Construction Worker
Environmental regulations are seen as job killers, but they really aren’t. Pexels

A 2011 Report to Congress on the Benefits and Costs of Federal Regulations found that from October 1, 2000 to September 20, 2010 the estimated costs of regulations were between $44 billion and $62 billion dollars. The estimated benefits? Between $132 billion and $655 billion, with the ranges reflecting uncertainty in the benefits and costs of each rule at the time that it was evaluated. The same report goes on to say that the air pollution rules from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) produced 62 to 84 percent of the benefits and 46 to 53 percent of the costs. The draft 2016 version of the same report that looked at 2005 to 2010 found basically the same thing. This report singles out two rules in particular—the 2007 Clean Air Final Particle Implementation Rule and the and the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants from Coal- and Oil-Fired Electric Utility Steam Generating Units (“MATS”)—as being especially beneficial.

If EPA regulations don’t murder American jobs in cold blood, why do so many of us think they hurt the workforce?

“There are two separate issues,” said Josh Bivens, the Director of the Research of the Economic Policy Institute. “One is the cost of regulations—regulations tend to have gross costs and gross benefits, and people who don’t like regulations like to focus on the gross costs and ignore the benefits.”

Put another way, if you buy a $1 lottery ticket, that’s your cost right there. If you win a million dollars, that’s your benefit. People who don’t like regulations tend to focus on the dollar you spent, not the $999,999 dollars you gained.

The real issue though, is who pays and who benefits—because they’re not one and the same. When a new regulation passes stating that a power plant has to, for example, erect scrubbers to reduce the pollution it emits, the company building the factory has to pay for those scrubbers—it has to pull out the dollar. But it’s the people in the surrounding community that get the millions dollar payout—in the form of hospital visits they never need to make, for example, or even a few extra years of life.

“I think,” says Bivens, “that one problem in regards to regulation is too many people, when they hear about the government imposing a regulation, think about the economic impacts in the most intuitive way to think about it. And that is, what if I owned that business and the government told me I had to do something differently in a way that [is] more expensive? Then it gets very easy to see the downsides. So, it’s like I own a coal-fired power plant and the government just willy nilly tells me I have to spend all of this money on scrubbers.”

But there’s another way of looking at it. When a coal-fired power plant pollutes, it creates what economists call external cost. Air pollution from coal power plants is responsible for everything from mercury in fish to asthma in toddlers. So, each time a fisherman loses money because she can’t sell a fish due to toxic mercury levels, and each time a parent has to rush their child to the emergency room because of an asthma attack, and each time a business owner has to pay out a sick day because their employee got a chest infection due to air pollution—those are all costs created by the power plant and paid out by the general public. Forcing the factory owner to install a scrubber is really just making them pay for the pollution costs that would otherwise come out of our pockets—or our lungs.

The EPA’s cost-benefit analysis determines how much it would cost for a business to clean up its act, and weighs that against the benefit for the rest of us.

“The cost-benefit analysis that a place like the EPA does is incredibly through and technical,” said Bivens, “and draws on peer reviewed academic literature.”

Costs from the Mercury and Air Toxics rule are actually quite easy to estimate, because the rule asks factories to use the best technology currently available. It tells them to up their game, not reach for a non-existent piece of technology. Estimating the benefits is trickier.

“What the EPA is doing is looking at a lot of health and epidemiology literature to look at what is exactly the effect of exposure to mercury, or heavy metal particulates,” said Bivens. Academic literature doesn’t come with a dollar sign—costs are often stated in terms like 10,000 additional emergency room visits, or 5,000 premature deaths. “Part of the challenge in the cost-benefit analysis is in “monetizing” those benefits.”

Bivens knows these challenges first hand because he analyzed two EPA regulations: the Clean Power Plan and the Mercury and Toxics Rule. In line with the government’s reports, he found that the benefits outweighed the costs.

Lobbyists emboldened during the Bush administration realized that by doing two things—calling science in general into question, and arguing (without evidence) that the regulations destroyed jobs—they could undermine the very framework that the EPA uses for decision making.

test tubes and sciencey stuff
Conservatives trust science the least. But it didn’t used to be that way. Pexels

In 2012, Gordon Gauchat conducted a study that looked at the politicization of science in the public sphere from 1974 to 2010. Using data from the General Social Survey, he looked at group differences in trust in science and changes in those groups over time. According to Gauchat’s work, conservatives began the period with the highest trust in science relative to liberals and moderates—and ended it with the lowest.

“I would say that the tenor with which people are discussing these things have gotten more and more unscientific,” said Bivens, “I think people feel free to say wild stuff about EPA regulations, even now relative to 2008 or 2009. At least in 2008 or ’09 when they would say something wild about an EPA regulation there would at least be an actual study out there that they’d refer to, and I might go to that study and go, ‘wow, is it flawed’. Now they can just sort of take it as an underlying baseline of knowledge that EPA regulations kill jobs, and don’t even feel the need to have something at their fingertips to wave around to justify that.”