EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler. Photo: Alamy
The people’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a new leader. Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler took the helm of the agency on July 9 following the resignation of Scott Pruitt. And now Wheeler has the opportunity to move past his predecessor’s scandals and return the agency to its science-based mission of protecting human health and the environment.
Like many other Trump administration department and agency heads, Mr. Wheeler is there to implement President Trump’s anti-regulatory, industry-first agenda—and he has clearly indicated his intention to do so. Yet in his address last week to a whipsawed and often demoralized EPA staff, he also acknowledged the agency’s “collective goal of protecting public health and the environment on behalf of the American people.”
If Wheeler is truly sincere about returning the EPA to its core mission, here are nine critical actions he will need to take to achieve that goal.
1. Abandon efforts to restrict the agency from using the best available science to protect public health
Former Administrator Pruitt pushed forward a dangerous proposal that would effectively restrict the types of science that can be used in policymaking. Under this proposal to restrict science, the EPA would be unable to use a range of public health research that relies on personal medical records and other information that must be kept confidential to protect individual and patient privacy rights.
Developed by political appointees with no input from scientific organizations, the proposal is a key part of the administration’s real goal: weaken air pollution rules that protect the quality of the air we breathe.
There is not a single mainstream scientific organization that supports the proposal. Public health organizations and experts have expressed significant concern about it. Dozens of scientists and advocates testified against the proposal at a public hearing in Washington, D.C. on July 17.
If the new acting administrator is serious about listening to science and scientists and to protecting public health, he will immediately withdraw the proposal to restrict science at the EPA.
2. Halt rollbacks of vehicle standards and close the “glider” truck loophole
The evidence is clear. Efficiency and emissions standards for vehicles are working, across the country, to cut emissions that impact our health, while saving families money at the pump. But former Administrator Pruitt willfully ignored the evidence, disavowing years of work by his own agency, and declared his intention to roll back these standards and effectively end the progress we’ve made on delivering cleaner cars of every size.
The administration has not yet issued a new proposed rule, which gives Wheeler the opportunity to listen to the evidence and change course. A growing number of states support strong standards, and we have the technology to continue to improve efficiency and cut emissions in a cost-effective way. Wheeler should halt efforts to roll back these successful standards.
In addition, Scott Pruitt’s final action in office was to announce that the agency would not enforce pollution rules for “glider” trucks, which often use higher-polluting older engines. The EPA’s own research shows that closing the loophole that allowed glider trucks to use old engines would save 1,600 lives every year by cutting dangerous pollution. The choice is clear: Mr. Wheeler must keep enforcing rules that keep high-pollution “glider” trucks from endangering hundreds of lives every year.
3. Improve transparency
In his address to EPA staff last week, Wheeler vowed to be more transparent about his actions than his predecessor. But to greatly improve transparency at the agency, he will need to go beyond ditching Scott Pruitt’s soundproof booth, unlocking access to the administrator’s office area, and making his public calendar actually public (some of which is now online). It will mean allowing reporters full and unfettered access to EPA scientists; affirming the rights of scientists to communicate the science publicly without first asking for permission; and fully complying with Freedom of Information Act requests.
It also means fully detailing how the many political appointees with current or former financial ties to industries that the EPA regulates—including Wheeler himself—will recuse themselves from decisions that affect their former employers and clients.
4. Support the facts on climate change
Unlike his predecessor, Wheeler acknowledged the facts on climate change in a recent interview, saying that “I do believe climate change is real. I do believe that people have an impact on the climate.”
That is encouraging to hear. But Wheeler should show leadership by more clearly and frequently articulating the urgent need to cut carbon emissions to limit the harmful effects of climate change, as well as highlighting the key role his agency must play in that effort.
To address the growing threat of climate change, the EPA can and should set strong standards to cut heat-trapping emissions from the power sector, the transportation sector, and from industrial sources. To support those efforts, it is also essential that Wheeler restores science to its rightful place at the EPA and removes all implicit or explicit barriers for staff working on issues related to climate change.
Last week, Wheeler noted the importance of communicating risks and related information to communities and the public, including the need to improve risk communication to lower income communities that are often most impacted by environmental threats. It is critical that his clearly articulated priority on risk communication also extends to the science, the risks, and the impacts of climate change to public health and the environment. An easy first step would be restoring the web pages on climate change that were taken down or buried on the EPA website under his predecessor.
5. Stop efforts to weaken and delay the Clean Power Plan
Under Pruitt, the EPA began efforts to dismantle the Clean Power Plan—the nation’s first-ever standards to limit power plant carbon emissions—and replace it with a substantially weaker standard.
It makes no sense to turn back the clock on the nation’s transition to clean energy, especially when the nation is facing worsening climate impacts—including flooding, heat waves, and wildfires—and the renewable energy industry is providing one of the fastest-growing sources of employment. What’s more, cutting carbon emissions from power plants will also decrease air and water pollution, which will bring significant public health benefits to communities around the country.
Mr. Wheeler must know that, despite the administration’s claims, undoing the Clean Power Plan will not bring back coal. Indeed, a recent analysis shows that many operating coal units in the country are increasingly uneconomic relative to cleaner generation sources. If the administration truly cared about coal miners and coal communities, it would work with Congress to pass legislation to help with transition assistance, worker training, and the creation of new economic opportunities in these communities.
Wheeler knows that the EPA is legally bound to act to limit carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act because they are a threat to public health. Rather than looking for ways to limit EPA’s role in addressing climate change, as he has indicated in recent interviews, he needs to make good on the agency’s legal obligations and deliver a strong power plant carbon standard without delay.
6. Acknowledge and account for the health benefits of improved air and water quality
The EPA recently issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking signaling its plan to substantially change the way the agency accounts for the benefits of pollution standards that improve public health.
The proposed rule would essentially use a deceptive approach that reduces or eliminates the way these substantial health benefits are accounted for in formulating new policies. And then use that as a back-door way to weaken rules that protect air and water quality. For example, the EPA’s 2017 proposal to repeal the Clean Power Plan used this type of crooked math to artificially lower the benefits of the pollution reductions that the standard would have brought. In particular, the EPA failed to account for the fact that actions to cut carbon emissions also pay large dividends by reducing other forms of harmful pollution like soot and smog.
If implemented, this proposed rule would have far-reaching consequences for the public’s health and well-being. Wheeler should halt this blatant attempt to fudge the numbers at the expense of the public’s health.
7. Require chemical companies to tell communities and first responders about the potential risks they face
In early 2017, the EPA finalized changes to the Risk Management Program that would have provided the public and our nation’s first responders with more information about hazardous chemicals at industrial facilities in their neighborhoods. Beyond supporting and advancing the agency’s community-right-to-know responsibilities, providing this information is just plain common sense for planning and preparing.
Under Pruitt, the EPA delayed implementation of these changes and then proposed a new rule that would roll back these improvements. In his speech to agency staff, Wheeler said that he wanted to improve risk communication, especially for low-income communities and communities of color. Reversing course on this rollback will demonstrate his sincerity, his leadership, and his willingness to put public health and safety ahead of chemical industry pushback.
8. Work with independent stakeholders
To ensure the EPA is upholding its fundamental mission to protect human health and the environment, the agency must be informed by the best available science and ensure that the well-being of communities affected by pollution are prioritized.
Wheeler’s predecessor, however, focused almost exclusively on engaging with business interests. He failed to engage with other stakeholders, including scientists and affected communities. Regulated industries are important stakeholders as well, but is it in the best interests of public health and the health of our economy for the EPA’s decisions to be informed almost exclusively by this narrow perspective? I don’t think so.
To ensure a broader airing of perspectives, issues, and concerns, Wheeler should commit to engaging with a wider set of stakeholders. This includes scientists with relevant expertise, environmental justice and other community groups, and public health professionals. Wheeler must elevate the mission of the agency above the interests of the regulated of industry groups. It also means rescinding a ban on science advice from the very scientists whose work the EPA has found most promising.
Wheeler must also provide adequate opportunities for public hearings and comments—and clearly demonstrate his commitment to serving the American public first and foremost.
9. Fight to protect and increase the budget of the EPA so it has the resources needed to do its job
President Trump and former Administrator Pruitt repeatedly proposed sweeping budget cuts to the EPA, threatening the ability of the agency to carry out its mission. In 2017, President Trump and then-Administrator Pruitt proposed cutting the spending by nearly a third, which would have taken the agency to the lowest level in 40 years. The administration followed up in 2018 with proposed budget cuts of over 25%.
These proposed cuts—which Congress ultimately rejected—would have had severe implications for the health and safety of the American public. As just one example, as I’ve written about before, such budget cuts would have gutted EPA clean air programs that allow EPA staff to monitor air quality levels, estimate population exposure to air pollutants, and provide tools and guidance to states that help ensure that Americans can breathe clean air.
The EPA needs a leader who sees the critical value of the work and the staff of the agency and will fight to protect—and actually increase—its budget so that the agency can carry out its mission and protect the health and safety of the American public. It makes no sense to hobble the agency’s ability to deal with current threats, let alone anticipate and plan for the future risks which are sure to come.
Over the coming weeks and months, we will be watching how Wheeler lives into his new role. Will he take the steps needed to put human health and the environment first and foremost in agency policy and decision-making? Will he stand up and ensure that the agency is guided by independent, unconflicted science in what it does and what it says? Will he restore agency morale—and integrity, trust, and credibility in the eyes of the public he is duty-bound to protect?
While the Trump administration’s track record gives us ample reason to be skeptical, Wheeler now has the opportunity to put duty to the public and to the country first.
There will be ample opportunities to encourage and insist that he do so in the months ahead. And we will be there with you to hold him accountable for his actions.