During his first week of presidency, President Donald Trump began one of his first attacks: The Environmental Protection Agency. The agency was created for the purpose of protecting human health and the environment by enforcing regulations passed by Congress. Basically, the goal of the agency, when it was created, was to give every American clean air and water. Simple as that.
In recent years, though, the EPA’s been on the chopping block for most Republicans, who see the agency as a perfect example of government waste and claim the EPA’s far too expensive, kills jobs and stymies economic growth.
Environmentalists emphatically disagree, citing that removing the EPA will not only degrade the quality of air and water but also incentivize states to deregulate pollution in order to attract dirty industries for economic gain. Beyond that, environmentalists point to China’s pollution problems as an example of a country without a centralized environmental agency and the problems it accrues.
So … how important is the EPA?
Before the election, President Trump campaigned that he’d cut the EPA’s budget and eliminate many of the organization’s regulations because, “overregulation presents one of the greatest barriers to entry into markets and one of the greatest costs to business that are trying to stay competitive.”
He’s not exactly wrong.
The EPA is the most expensive federal regulatory agency, with an annual budget of around $8.2 billion. Due to this expense, the Republicans have, for years, hoped to reduce—if not completely eliminate—the environmental agency, referring to it as not only expensive but also a “job killer” because of the regulations, and consequent operational costs, it imposes on businesses. The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a nonprofit, libertarian think-tank in Washington D.C., estimates the annual impact of EPA rules at about $386 billion—or roughly 2.1 percent of the country’s GDP. To put this number in perspective, it’s about the same size as Norway’s entire GDP.
As a so-called “job killer,” the American Action Forum, a nonprofit issue advocacy group that promotes center-right public policy, projects that job losses from the EPA’s carbon rule and power plant regulation could be as high as 296,000. During the confirmation hearing of Scott Pruitt, the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Senator John Barasso, Republican of Wyoming, said in the hearing’s opening, “EPA regulations crushed energy jobs in my state.” Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia echoed Barasso’s sentiment, “The regulatory overreach of the EPA has contributed to economic devastation in my state of West Virginia.”
Furthermore, one of the driving arguments for the dismantling of the EPA is that environmental policy should be left to the states, and the EPA explicitly affirms that their goal is to “Strengthen partnerships with states, tribes, local governments and the global community to deliver on our environmental and health improvements.”
Again, those keywords “states, tribes, local governments” engender the question: Should states and communities decide which environmental policies are important to them? What effects a programmer in San Francisco almost certainly differs from the environmental impacts in rural Nebraska or in New Mexico. Perhaps eliminating the EPA will provide an opportunity for states to implement a similar agency—or agencies—that enact better policies for its residents.
Do you know why the EPA was created? The way Republicans talk about the agency, you’d think it’d be the byproduct of some San Francisco stoners, but, no, the environmental agency is a product of President Richard Nixon—a Republican president, mind you—who pretty much believed every American deserved access to clean water and air.
How nice is that?
See, back then, contaminated water was the norm. Less than two weeks after Nixon announced the EPA, the agency was ready to pounce. They’d planned lawsuits against the cities of Atlanta, Cleveland and Detroit unless they stopped polluting their rivers with sewage. In 1972, the organization banned most uses of the pesticide DDT, a move that literally saved the bald eagle from extinction.
Four decades later, the EPA’s enforcement of the Clean Air Act has curbed millions of cases of respiratory diseases from pollution, and most rivers are no longer cesspools that could literally catch fire like the Cuyahoga. It’s actually pretty fucking nice.
If the EPA were to be removed, there’s no reason to expect this wouldn’t, again, become the norm. Experts like Robert Percival, director of the environmental law program at the University of Maryland, predict that killing the EPA would encourage states to deregulate pollution and toxic chemicals in order to attract dirty industries. More than that, it would unravel basic protections of wind and water. In an interview with The Guardian, Percival said, “It reflects a lack of understanding over the U.S. legal system, you’d have to fundamentally repeal or change all our environmental laws.”
Not only that, but it’d also have enormous consequences for people’s health. A 2012 study out of M.I.T. estimated that the Clean Air Act alone has saved $22 trillion in healthcare costs during its four-decade lifetime. In a way, the EPA pays for itself. Take a look at China’s environmental problems to see an industrialized nation without any centralized regulator.
Now, as for Republicans claiming the EPA is claiming jobs, that doesn’t seem to be the case either. Where jobs are lost, other jobs are created. With the disappearance of coal and oil jobs emerged jobs in wind power and solar technology, according to a study out of Duke University. Perhaps, for many politicians, it’s easier to blame regulations than acknowledge a changing economy.
Top photo by FromSandToGlass CC BY 2.0
Tom Burson is a travel writer, part-time hitchhiker, and he’s currently trying to imitate Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? but with more sunscreen and jorts.