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Monday, February 13, 2017

Can "institutional inertia" save the EPA?

by Gaius Publius

In Trump World, an example of unsound science (source: National Academy of Science)

Is it an emergency yet?

Trump's plans for changes to and at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have been leaked to a site called "Axios" and outlets like New York Magazine are treating the information as viable. We will as well.

From NYMag's writeup (my emphasis throughout):
Anyone laboring under the impression that the new Trump administration will be all bark and no bite when it comes to overturning long-established bipartisan policies should watch Team Trump’s assault on the Environmental Protection Agency closely. Aside from appointing Scott Pruitt, who is mainly familiar with EPA as a hated adversary in court, to be in charge of that agency, plans for an initial regulatory wave and budgetary policies amount to a 180-degree turn in environmental enforcement, as reported today by Axios. They include the complete elimination of climate-change programs; a half-billion-dollars in funding cuts for EPA grants to state and local governments; an immediate halt to Clean Air Act regulations affecting new and existing power plants; an about-face on auto emissions standards; and a general defanging of EPA’s crucial ability to overrule federal and state regulations that pose environmental dangers.

That’s probably just the beginning, because these plans were formulated by Trump’s EPA transition director, Myron Ebell, mostly famous as a climate-change skeptic, but more generally active as a policy wonk at a very prominent libertarian-ish think tank called the Competitive Enterprise Institute, financed mostly by a rogue’s gallery of fossil-fuel industries and right-wing foundations.
That's quite a wish-list.

From the Axios article by Jonathan Swan and Mike Allen (bolded emphasis mine):
We got a sneaky look at the Trump transition team's EPA "agency action" plan. It's the guiding (aspirational) document written by Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. One of the striking aspects of the document was its language about the agency's use of scientific research and economic analysis to justify its actions. A section titled 'Addendum on the problems with EPA science' leads with this paragraph:

EPA does not use science to guide regulatory policy as much as it uses regulatory policy to steer the science. This is an old problem at EPA. In 1992, a blue-ribbon panel of EPA science advisers that [sic] 'science should not be adjusted to fit policy.' But rather than heed this advice, EPA has greatly increased its science manipulation.

The document goes on to recommend what can be done to "improve the use of science by EPA":
  • EPA should not be funding scientific research
  • If EPA uses scientific data for regulation, that data must be publicly available so independent scientists can review it
  • EPA's science advisory process needs to be overhauled to eliminate conflicts of interest and inherent bias
  • Science standards need to be developed and implemented to ensure that science policy decisions and epidemiological practices are based on sound science
If you look again at the italicized paragraph (quoted from the leaked document), you can see the Orwellian "up is down" basis for the statements in the bullets, the unsupported assertion that the EPA engages in "science manipulation." From that "given" follows the rest: The first bulleted item is plain, no more science for you, EPA. The second hinges on the word "independent" (refer again to the quoted paragraph to see what kind of "independence" Trump's team is looking for). The third turns on the meaning of "inherent bias." The fourth turns on the meaning of "sound science" (as determined by the Administrator).

One person's "overhaul" is another person's "gutting." Looks like the EPA is headed for a gutting.

Institutional inertia

I asked a person I know who was formerly high up at the EPA, a career civil servant, not a political appointee, about the effect of Pruitt on the EPA. This person advised me that it takes more than 20 months (almost two years) to overturn rulings and programs in an organization as big and complex as the EPA, which oversees laws, regulations and processes that are themselves very complex. I call that slow rate of change "institutional inertia."

Can institutional inertia save the EPA, at least for a while? We'll see. The writers at Axios are asking the same question and turned to a "tipster" for some context:
A tipster gives us three important contextual points regarding the executive orders:
  • They may be able to implement some of them administratively, but there will be discomfort amongst some Republicans and it will cost the Administration political capital.
  • It is not a binary process. In other words, they can't just overturn them, it may take some time if they are already in the process of being implemented and opponents will have legal recourse to challenge some of the actions.
  • There are huge, entrenched bureaucracies at these agencies, and especially at EPA, which is filled with true believers on the environmental movement, climate change, clean water and air. These thousands of people will dig in and make it very difficult for the thin layer of political appointees atop these agencies to move quickly to undo their years of work to put these things in place.
Take the prejudicial description — "true believers" — as showing the tipster to be a climate-denying Republican source. As to people "digging in," I suspect they'll do more than that. The "thin layer of political appointees" is very thin indeed, with extremely experienced career employees heading up each of the arms of the huge agency, with nothing but career employees beneath them. Will they revolt by pouring virtual molasses into the already-slow-moving gears of change? We'll see.

If they do, Trump and Pruitt are likely to respond by developing enemies lists within the organization — civil servants and career employees they want to fire for (trumped up) cause. Or they may do this anyway, proactively. This could very well spark retaliation on the part of the rest of the employees. In other words, war, of a bureaucratic sort.

Stay tuned — as a spectator sport, this should be interesting. And as a spectacle with huge environmental and climate implications, read "interesting" in the sense of the Chinese curse.

Also, watch what happens at NASA and NOAA, agencies also deeply involved — as you've seen many times — in both responding to and creating the science around climate change. I'm sure they're next to be "overhauled," if that isn't happening already.

Is it an emergency yet? If it is, what do you suggest we do to prevent it? Don't despair; humans are resourceful. I'm sure someone will come up with an response.

(A version of this piece appeared at Down With Tyranny. GP article archive here.)