Despite post-election hand wringing by mainstream environmental groups that tilt left, Republican presidents have a commendable track record of appointing highly qualified heads to run the Environmental Protection Agency, and people who are genuinely committed to the agency’s mission to safeguard our environment.
Donald Trump would do well to follow suit. Unfortunately, the person he placed in charge of EPA transition, Myron Ebell, is not likely to recommend candidates who take the agency’s mission seriously. Ebell, a fervent advocate for polluters, has never met a pollution limit he likes. His life’s mission seems to be opposing environmental laws and attacking any scientific conclusion that finds pollution harmful, including climate change.
There is nothing prudent nor conservative about Ebell and his agenda.
The EPA is a Republican invention born of necessity. Richard Nixon created the agency in response to the severe air and water pollution problems of the early 1970s.
People tend to forget what things were like before EPA.
Smog choked many of our cities, and rivers across the nation functioned as open sewers that reeked of sewage and industrial waste. Ohio’s Cuyahoga River, which infamously caught on fire, was described by TIME as “chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows.” Lake Erie was little more than a cesspool, so polluted that each square yard of the lake bottom writhed with 30,000 sludge worms.
The “America the Beautiful” of the Katharine Bates poem had become a comedic punch line, and the health, prosperity and quality of life of Americans was suffering. Previous federal, state and local laws had proved ineffective at stemming the tide of pollution that fouled our air and water.
Nixon appointed William Ruckelshaus as the first EPA administrator. He was followed by Russell Train. Both were effective leaders who proved instrumental in shaping the agency and implementing many of the nation’s landmark environmental laws such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.
President Reagan, after his first appointee didn’t work out, asked Ruckelshaus to head the EPA again and restore its effectiveness. Ruckelshaus was followed by Lee Thomas, who barred the use of lead in gasoline and helped Reagan push through the Montreal Protocol treaty that began phasing out ozone depleting chemicals.
George H.W. Bush appointed William K. Reilly, who made strengthening the role of science a priority at the EPA. He played a major role in negotiating and securing passage of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendment. That clean air legislation successfully addressed acid rain by establishing a cap-and-trade system to reduce sulfur dioxide pollution, and took additional steps to phase out ozone depleting chemicals.
George W. Bush tapped former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman to head the EPA. During her tenure, she fought hard for scientifically supported pollution standards, often at odds with the pro-industry advocacy of Vice President Dick Cheney. After Whitman eventually resigned, Bush appointed former Utah governor Mike Leavitt to lead the agency.
Leavitt pledged to lead the country towards the “most productive period of air-quality improvement in American history.” He favored cap-and-trade systems to address pollution and implemented the Interstate Air Quality Rule to reduce smog-producing ozone and other air pollutants.
After Leavitt was chosen to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, Bush appointed Stephen L. Johnson as EPA administrator. Citing the Supreme Court’s Massachusetts v. EPA decision, Johnson recommended that the Bush Administration to issue an endangerment finding on greenhouse gas pollution and had formulated a plan to regulate carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act.
None of these GOP EPA heads were environmental group favorites, some were vehemently opposed, but any objective review will conclude that each of these administrators believed in the agency, accepted scientific findings, and worked to improve the quality of our environment.
The American people deserve no less from the incoming Trump Administration. As President Nixon said, clear air and clean water should be “the birthright of every American,” and poll after poll shows that Republicans, Independents, and Democrats alike expect no less.
That birthright will be severely threatened if Trump places a fringe radical like Myron Ebell at the helm of the agency responsible for safeguarding it.
The EPA is an easy target for extremists because it exists to set rules and standards. This draws the ire of those whose objectives are encumbered in any way by the existence of such limits. But history has proven that such controls are necessary to protect our health and quality of life against mankind’s lesser instincts.
Conservatism has always called for prudent checks on mankind’s material will and appetite, and it would be folly to turn the EPA over to those who would render it impotent to exploit our life-sustaining environment for material gain.
Past Republican presidents understood this. They foresaw that the EPA would not be able to function if its leader had an anti-environment ax to grind and disdain for the agency’s purpose.
For the sake of every American, let’s hope that President-elect Trump will exercise the same prudent foresight.
David Jenkins is the president of Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship, a national nonprofit organization.
Morning Consult welcomes op-ed submissions on policy, politics and business strategy in our coverage areas. Submission guidelines can be found here.