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Environmental Advocacy Group Monitors Trump's EPA For Changes


The Environmental Protection Agency is beginning life under a new boss who sued them again and again. Scott Pruitt has made a few public statements now, and they've offered a few clues to his priorities.


Pruitt is Oklahoma's former attorney general. He's been so critical of the EPA that he made headlines last week when he suggested in public that he didn't seem to despise the whole agency. Speaking to a group of mayors, Pruitt spoke favorably of EPA programs that they use. And he said they should promote stories of how those programs work.

INSKEEP: This, even though the administration is calling for big cuts to the EPA budget. A group that advocates on environmental issues is following Pruitt's every word, seeking signs of what happens next. The group is the Natural Resources Defense Council. It has campaigned against Pruitt's confirmation to the job. And its government affairs director, David Goldston, came by our studios.

Now that he's had a chance to look inside the agency and to speak a little bit, what have you learned that Pruitt likes about the EPA?

DAVID GOLDSTON: Well, he likes, he claims, the assistance to states, which we knew going in. He's actually argued, really, that there maybe shouldn't be a federal effort on environmental protection but that it should be left to the states.

INSKEEP: You mean assistance that goes straight through the federal government down to various state governments, their EPAs, their equivalents to the EPA?

GOLDSTON: That's correct. And some of this is construction money that goes for drinking water and sewage projects. Some of it is aid to help states actually enforce federal environmental laws. Some is efforts for states to improve their own programs.

INSKEEP: He actually got a big round of applause when he was talking to people from the Conference of Mayors and he mentioned some of these programs. Let's listen.


SCOTT PRUITT: I want you to know that with the White House and also with Congress, I'm communicating a message that the Brownfields Program; the Superfund program; water infrastructure, WIFIA grants, state revolving funds are essential to protect.

INSKEEP: Brownfields Program, Superfund program - what are they?

GOLDSTON: These are efforts to clean up sites that have been harmed by chemical pollution.

INSKEEP: Like it might be a former factory site that someone...

GOLDSTON: Factory site, chemical dumping ground - and these programs are great, and we support them. But what's not being said is he's not arguing against the cuts in everything else. And if it's a 25 percent cut, as been rumored, then that means everything else will be cut even more.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. If you preserve the money for this part of the EPA, there's even less money for the rest of it.

GOLDSTON: That's correct.

INSKEEP: So what is the rest of it? What is it the administration doesn't like, as best you can tell?

GOLDSTON: The rest of it is really most of what people maybe think of with EPA - coming up with rules that help protect the environment, enforcing those rules, making sure that companies abide by them, keeping up on the latest science, performing research and development to understand environmental problems - a whole range of things that then actually help the states then decide what to enforce.

INSKEEP: What has the administration said about climate?

GOLDSTON: So the administration has given mixed messages. The president, of course, infamously called climate a hoax. He's since then been very hard to pin down on climate.

INSKEEP: He seemed to acknowledge some man-made cause of climate change in a CBS interview after the election.

GOLDSTON: That's right. And the line that Cabinet appointees took during all their hearings was - sure, the climate is changing. Maybe humans contribute, but we don't know how much. That's not what the science tells us. The science tells us the human element is enough that that's the main driver of climate change right now, and that's the piece that humans can do something about.

INSKEEP: Has Scott Pruitt, in your monitoring of his public statements since becoming administrator, said anything about climate change one way or the other?

GOLDSTON: He has been conspicuously silent in his opening talk to EPA employees. Climate was an issue that went unmentioned. And when that was pointed out to EPA, there was no effort to say that that wasn't on purpose.

INSKEEP: Why do you think that they would not say a thing about it?

GOLDSTON: They don't have anything to say that they think the public would support. And there is, by most reports, dispute within the administration now on exactly how to move forward on climate.

INSKEEP: What's the dispute based on what you've followed?

GOLDSTON: Well, the dispute is, for example, whether to pull out of the Paris Agreement or not.

INSKEEP: That's the worldwide agreement that commits countries to do various things that they have offered up to combat climate change.

GOLDSTON: Exactly, to limit carbon pollution from each country.

And they have been signaling for some time that the president is going to sign an executive order directing EPA to start rolling back Obama-era rules to limit carbon pollution. But that hasn't come out yet, and that's apparently because there's some question about how they want to handle it and how far they want to go.

INSKEEP: What kind of political support do you have inside the Republican-controlled Congress at the moment?

GOLDSTON: I think cuts of this magnitude are even raising eyebrows among leading Republicans. Mike Simpson from Idaho, for example, who used to be the top appropriator, person controlling spending for EPA in the House, has said he doesn't think that cuts of this magnitude really make much sense or could go forward.

On the Democratic side, there's very strong support for EPA and almost a sense that cuts of this magnitude - some clearly make the case that they're an attack on EPA's very existence and not about budget - that it's almost an assist to them in fighting for EPA to have cuts of this magnitude suggested.

INSKEEP: Are you prepared for a multiyear fight?

GOLDSTON: Yes. We're assuming that the administration is absolutely in earnest in its effort to dismantle the EPA for all intents and purposes. And this will go on for as long as they are in charge. And so we assume that we will be fighting this for at least the next four years.

INSKEEP: David Goldston, thanks very much.

GOLDSTON: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: He's director of governmental affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.