Open letter to EPA Chief Scott Pruitt

From Michael Cox – Retired EPA Region 10 Employee

May 31, 2017

Dear Administrator Pruitt:

My name is Michael Cox. I retired from EPA on March 31, 2017 after over 25 years of service. Prior to retiring, I sent you a letter outlining concerns about the direction of EPA under your leadership and provided suggestions on how you could improve. I was hopeful you would make some adjustments to better engage EPA career staff and to push back on the Administration’s efforts to dramatically cut EPA’s budget and reduce staff to levels not seen for over 30 years. Unfortunately, based on the President’s most recent EPA budget, my conversations with EPA staff, and some of your recent decisions, I am even more concerned than in late March about the direction of EPA under your leadership.

Several of your decisions over the past two months are particularly disturbing. These include: the settlement agreement with Pebble Limited Partnership on the development of the Pebble mine in Alaska; your removal of scientists from the EPA Board of Scientific Counselors; your decision to withdraw a survey of the oil and gas companies asking about onshore equipment and controls that could reduce emissions of greenhouse gases including methane; and your decision to override the recommendations of EPA scientists on the use of chlorpyrifos. Collectively, these decisions indicate a pattern of disregard for science, lack of consultation with EPA staff who have worked on these issues for years, and an obvious bias towards industry.

I continue to hope that you will show your leadership and reach out to EPA staff to seek their advice, but it is becoming apparent that you are instead on a path that will continue to alienate EPA staff and a large section of the public. Most importantly these actions will lead to real environmental harm. There are several areas where your leadership is urgently needed to safeguard our country, and to keep the EPA true to its mission.

1. Climate change is a core part of EPA’s mission and to say otherwise is short-sighted, and contrary to the laws on the books and the best available science, and puts millions of Americans at risk. You have stated several times that EPA’s programs on climate change have been a distraction from its core mission. I would like to remind you that EPA’s core mission is to protect human health and the environment. To claim that reducing greenhouse gas emissions and working with communities to help them adapt to climate change is not part of EPA’s core mission is wrong and a breach of your duty as EPA Administrator. This is making you a laughing stock to EPA staff, the scientific community, and, frankly, the rest of the world.

This is further highlighted by going to the EPA web page and looking under environmental topics. Presumably, the topics listed here are those that the EPA believes are of greatest concern. The list includes bed bugs, but, shockingly, does not include climate change. While bed bugs can be a serious problem, it is remarkable that climate change is not even included as an environmental topic of concern.
On the global stage, you have strongly advocated for the United States to withdraw from the Paris Climate Change Agreement. This would be a big mistake. It is shameful that our nation’s top environmental official is so uninformed about the science of climate change and the benefits of the Agreement to the United States and the world. Let me highlight a few of the advantages of the Paris Agreement.

First, the Agreement was the first time in history that both developed and developing countries made pledges to reduce greenhouse gases. While these pledges are not binding, this is a huge step forward, and it would not have happened without leadership from the United States, China, and the European Union. Second, the Agreement requires all countries to monitor, report, and verify progress they are making in meeting their pledges. This was a breakthrough that will enable the United States to put pressure on countries that are not meeting their commitments. Third, dozens of U.S. companies have indicated we should not withdraw from the Agreement because it would be bad for business. Fourth, the Agreement sends a clear message that the world understands it is time to start shifting to clean energy economies, and provides the United States an opportunity to be global leaders in this transition.

I could go on with many other reasons, but for the sake of our country and the world, please listen to the many voices from across the political and business spectrum and advocate for the United States not only to stay in the Agreement, but to continue the leadership role we have played to date. Only two countries did not sign the Paris Climate Agreement – Syria and Nicaragua. Do you really want to be remembered as the Administrator who joined these two countries and abdicated global leadership on climate change?

2. You are not meeting your stated intention to listen and learn from EPA career staff. When you began your position as EPA Administrator, you stated you wanted to listen and learn from EPA career staff. I was hopeful that you would follow through with this pledge. Unfortunately, based on my experience and conversations with EPA staff, you have failed in this commitment. My understanding is that your communication with EPA staff is minimal, you have not traveled to the Regional offices and Labs to meet with staff, and decisions are made without consulting career staff as is clearly evident in your opposition to climate change, in general, and the Paris Agreement, specifically. This is not only a failure in commitment, but poor leadership.

You need to travel to the EPA Regions and Labs; you need to meet with career staff and listen to their concerns; you need to engage staff that have knowledge of issues to learn from them instead of retreating to Washington, DC and relying on people who have no understanding of environmental science or the regulatory landscape; and you need to show leadership and stop demonizing EPA at all of your speaking engagements.

3. Your lack of understanding of EPA’s work is damaging staff morale and pitting EPA against its most important partners. Three core principles are identified in the recent 2018 President’s budget document: rule of law, cooperative federalism, and public participation. While these are important principles, the implication is that EPA has not been adhering to these principles. Based on my experience, EPA has been following these three core principles and to imply otherwise indicates that you and your immediate staff do not understand the work EPA has been doing for decades, undermines staff confidence in your understanding of what EPA does, and pits EPA against its state and tribal partners.

In terms of the rule of law, the EPA and the Department of Justice’s lawyers who work on legal issues for EPA are incredibly diligent and if anything, are overly conservative when providing legal counsel. I worked with EPA legal staff on several national regulations, along with many enforcement cases. They always asked the most difficult questions and ensured we were adhering to the law.

In terms of working with states and tribes, the implication that EPA has not worked with them as partners is not consistent with my experience. EPA does not always agree with states and tribes on every issue, but they are considered partners in everything EPA does. While you are correct, that states are, in many cases, responsible for implementing and enforcing the different environmental laws, EPA retains oversight of those programs as directed by Congress.

Finally, during my time with EPA, there was extensive public participation on a range of issues from working with communities at Superfund sites, to providing extensive opportunity for comments on rulemakings, and working with communities and industry on their specific issues. EPA staff understand that they have an obligation to get the public’s input on all of their activities and is actively engaged in accomplishing this task.

4. The President’s 2018 proposed budget will significantly undermine EPA’s ability to meet its mission to protect human health and the environment. I could comment on many aspects of the President’s 2018 budget, but I will highlight four areas that are particularly problematic: climate change research, state and tribal grants, geographic programs such as the Puget Sound, and enforcement. It is very likely that Congress will modify the President’s budget, including that for EPA. However, the clear message of the President’s budget to EPA staff is that this Administration’s goal is “deconstructing the Administrative state”, as stated by Presidential Advisor Steve Bannon. EPA seems to be the main target of this deconstruction and it is truly disheartening. One of the main outcomes will be a reduction in the ability of all levels of government (federal, state, local, and tribal) to provide the environmental protections that all Americans deserve and demand.

This Administration must stop incorrectly stating that during the Obama Administration EPA’s budget and staff increased. It is false to assert that during the Obama Administration the Agency’s budget and staff increased and implies that EPA has become a large, out-of-control agency. In fact, in 2008, the budget for EPA was $7.5 billion with about 17,000 staff. By 2017, the budget for EPA had fallen to $7.4 billion and about 15,000 staff. The 2018 President’s budget sharply reduces the EPA budget to $5.6 billion with about 11,500 staff. For comparison, the EPA budget in 1990 was $5.5 billion (1990 dollars) and in 1984 the number of EPA staff was 11,400. The proposed cuts are not only demoralizing to EPA staff but will permanently damage the ability of EPA to meet its mission of protecting human health and the environment.

Eliminating the research budget for climate change is contrary to your desire to address unanswered questions related to climate change. You have indicated that there are many unanswered questions related to climate change. However, in order to address those questions, it is important that the EPA conducts research about climate change. Unfortunately, the latest President’s budget eliminates all EPA funding for climate change research ($19 million dollars and 47 people) and abolishes a program that funded research grants and graduate fellowships in environmental science and engineering that includes climate change ($39 million, including $3.5 million for climate change). It is impossible to answer scientific questions without doing the necessary research.

Reducing state and tribal resources while increasing their responsibilities does not make sense and does not take into account the current fiscal condition of many states and tribes. Throughout the budget document, and during your presentations, you indicate you want states and tribes to take more responsibility for different environmental programs. At the same time, your 2018 EPA budget reduces the overall funding to states, tribes, tribal consortia, and non-profits by almost half (2017 budget was $1.1 billion; 2018 budget would be almost $600 million). Many state and tribal programs are completely eliminated (e.g., radon, lead, non-point source pollution, pollution prevention, and Alaska Native Villages).

Many states are struggling to balance their budgets. For example, Alaska is dealing with falling oil revenue and Washington must meet a court order to provide billions of additional dollars for education. The idea that states will allocate additional funds for environmental programs given these challenges is slim. In my mind, this is a recipe for disaster.

Eliminating funds for geographic programs such as the Great Lakes, Puget Sound, and Chesapeake Bay will jeopardize the gains made in all these ecosystems and reduce much needed revenues to states and local communities. The 2018 President’s budget eliminates all funds for geographic programs. The funds that EPA has provided to assist in the protection and restoration of these large ecosystems has been invaluable. For example, without these funds, in Puget Sound it will be more difficult to continue to protect and restore the shellfish beds and salmon fisheries which provide substantial economic resources for the Region. Without EPA funds, work to reduce the flow of toxic chemicals into Puget Sound from stormwater will be diminished. Reducing the resources for the protection of these great water bodies is short-sighted and will cause harm to the local economies that rely on healthy ecosystems.

Reducing the enforcement budget by almost 20 percent will send the wrong message to the regulated community and make it harder to meet EPA’s mission: A cornerstone of EPA’s work is enforcing the laws enacted by Congress. The majority of businesses in the United States adhere to the environmental laws. However, there are some who will not adhere either because they do not understand the requirements or to save money. It is unrealistic to think states and tribes will be able to pick up the enforcement work that EPA will be unable to accomplish.

5. Stop falsely asserting that the oil and gas industry suffered under the Obama Administration. You have made several incorrect statements about how oil and natural gas production were stymied by the Obama Administration. Over the past 30 years, the peak production of U.S. oil occurred in in 1986 when 8.9 million barrels were produced daily. There was a steady decline in production with a low point in 2008, when 3.8 million barrels were produced daily in the United States. In May 2016, 8.5 million barrels of oil were produced daily. This is close to an all-time high for domestic oil production. Natural gas production in the United States in 2008 was about 21 million cubic feet. In 2016, natural gas production in the United States was about 28 million cubic feet. This was an all-time high for domestic natural gas production.

I was hopeful when you were appointed to be EPA Administrator that you would take the time to listen and learn from EPA staff and provide a counterbalance to the anti-environment rhetoric of the President’s campaign. It is not too late to learn more about the issues and science from EPA staff. If you make the effort, I am confident that you will see that the work EPA has done, and, hopefully, will continue to do, is valuable and vital to protect human health and the environment.

I expect we disagree about the role of government and, specifically, the role of EPA in solving our nation’s problems. However, I would ask that you think about the impact your leadership and policies will have on your and my children and grandchildren. Specifically, please take a look at the future and ask yourself, “What if I am wrong about climate change and the impacts are as bad as the majority of scientists around the world are projecting?”

You are in a very powerful and influential position. You have a choice. You can honor your position as the EPA Administrator and provide leadership on moving our country forward to protect the American people and the environment. Or you can abdicate your responsibilities as the Chief Environment Officer of the United States and risk causing harm that will remain long after you leave your position. I hope you choose to take the path that will lead us on a sustainable path that benefits this country and the world.

Michael Cox
Retired EPA Region 10 Employee