With New EPA Head, Environmental Protection Falls to Citizens

Johan Cavert, Contributing Writer

Despite his ideological opposition to the Environmental Protection Agency, Senate confirmed former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the agency last Friday. Pruitt’s confirmation is further evidence that President Donald Trump and the Republican Party will neglect the health of our planet in favor of the fossil fuel industry. Abandoned by the federal government, Americans will need to fight back with increased grassroots organizing and environmental activism at the community and state levels.

Throughout his campaign, Trump promised to gut and possibly eliminate the EPA, and he appears to be following through on that promise with his selection of Pruitt, whose record as Oklahoma Attorney General was hotly debated during his confirmation process. During his tenure, Pruitt was responsible for filing 13 lawsuits challenging the EPA, often arguing that government regulations had overstepped their legal limits.

Additionally, Pruitt signed his name to letters ghostwritten by fossil fuel lobbyists that were then sent to federal regulators. In some instances, Pruitt collected campaign donations from corporations that had benefited from these actions. A cache of court-ordered documents released Tuesday further exposed Pruitt’s cozy ties to the fossil fuel industry. Tellingly, Senate Republicans rushed to confirm Pruitt before the documents could be analyzed, even going so far as to change committee bylaws to overcome a Democratic boycott.

In the 1960s, citizen outcry over the horrendous state of America’s environmental policy birthed the modern environmental movement and spurred the passage of protective legislation, including the creation of the EPA. Now, Pruitt’s takeover threatens a return to the environmental degradation of that era. In response, it is again time for citizens to take to the streets to demand policy that works to create a clean and healthy environment.

Looking ahead, the future of the environment and the people who inhabit it is bleak. Trump has already voiced his opposition to many of the signature elements of President Barack Obama’s environmental legacy. Just last week, for instance, Trump signed a bill allowing coal companies to dump waste into streams. As head of the EPA, Pruitt will play a key role if Trump pulls the U.S. out of the landmark 2015 Paris Climate agreement and has the power to gut Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Pruitt can also easily impair the EPA by slashing budgets, firing personnel and delaying important projects. Though some actions may be subtle, any holdup in the EPA’s work is indicative of this administration’s lethargic and nonchalant attitude toward public health and environmental degradation.

One hope for activists lies in Pruitt’s consistent defense of federalism. During his confirmation hearings and tenure as state attorney general, Pruitt repeated his belief that the power of environmental regulation should be ceded to the states. While centralized regulation is far more effective, states have an increasingly important role to play in the absence of strong environmental protection from the federal government.

Another cause for hope is the government bureaucracy that has previously irked environmentalists struggling to push through progressive legislation. Overturning and rewriting environmental laws will be a slow and difficult process. Many environmental lawyers and litigators have pledged to fight Trump at every step. For instance, multiple suits have already been filed to prevent the construction of the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines.

In the meantime, activists must rise to the challenge. As President of the Natural Resources Defense Council Rhea Suh said in a speech at the Women’s March on Washington, “We are still a democracy. We should never forget our country was created by ordinary individuals who stood up for what they believed in. Our progress has depended on average citizens creating the future we want.”

Grassroots environmental organizing and activism must fill the void created by Pruitt’s EPA. With a federal government that willfully ignores and denies the human impact of climate change, change must come from the bottom up. Citizens need to advocate for stronger state legislation and support for environmental-justice initiatives. Local communities must embrace renewable energy and innovative sustainable strategies. As they did during the first Earth Day in 1970, local communities must come together to embrace the universal challenges posed by climate change and bring about reform in their own lives and regions.

Besides calling senators and signing petitions, there are concrete actions Oberlin students and community members can take to support environmental health. The Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines may be geographically distant, but the upcoming NEXUS pipeline is set to run directly through Oberlin and will transport 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day as it connects to existing pipelines in Ohio, Michigan and Canada. Construction is slated to begin this spring. Students for Energy Justice have been organizing direct actions, protests and canvassing in response to NEXUS and will surely have upcoming opportunities for involvement.

At a national level, a National Climate March is being planned in Washington, D.C. for April 29 to protest Trump’s environmental agenda. The event will be a key moment to rally and inspire grassroots activists. There will likely be options for Oberlin students to attend or to participate in local sister marches, and it will be an opportunity to show solidarity with other local environmental activists around the country. It’s time for activists to respond by showing Pruitt the surging strength of state and local environmentalism.