Limits of a Trump EPA
Our view: In Maryland and elsewhere, environmental protection will have to start closer to home
The Hogan administration’s petition filed this week urging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to crack down on 19 out-of-state, upwind coal-fired power plants that pollute Maryland’s air is certainly a welcome development. Maryland’s environment secretary had more or less promised such action earlier this year when he declined to join a multi-state lawsuit seeking similar enforcement by the federal agency.
The strategy might even prove productive if action is taken in the waning days of the Obama administration, which has expressed concern not only about toxic pollutants like sulfur dioxide that can be particularly harmful to people with asthma or other breathing problems, but carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Maryland is imperiled by all of the above and needs federal authorities to act given that as much as 70 percent of the state’s air pollution can be traced to upwind sources.
So why does it sound like Maryland is asking for Marquess of Queensbury rules in the face of a street brawl? Most likely because Donald Trump was elected president last week and, in his first act of environmental stewardship named Myron Ebell, a professional climate change denier, to head his EPA transition team. The appointment came as no surprise given how often Mr. Trump attacked the EPA’s efforts to protect public health and safety during the campaign, but it surely set the stage for what is coming next.
Here’s another clue: Those offending coal-burning plants are located in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. What else do they all have in common besides dirty air? They all supported Mr. Trump. How did Maryland do in this regard? Hillary Clinton won 60.5 percent of the vote, one of her best showings in the nation.
It will be President Trump’s obligation to enforce the terms of the Clean Air Act, and that includes interstate sources of pollution. Indeed, the offending power plants in question already have the technology to reduce emissions that contribute to ground-level ozone, they simply don’t use it as often as they should. But how many people think the EPA of the Trump administration will take such action willingly, if at all? There is ample reason to be skeptical.
In an interview on Fox News last year, Mr. Trump called for the EPA to be cut and said its work was a “disgrace.” He wrote in his book, “The Art of the Comeback,” that “asbestos got a bad rap from miners.” And then there’s Mr. Ebell, whose Center of Energy and Environment has long sought to downplay the adverse impacts of pesticides.
All of which suggests that Maryland and any other state that cares about clean water and clean air had better be prepared to defend that turf itself. Quickly leaving are the days when the EPA could be counted on to be an aggressive enforcer of federal law. In the future, states and local governments will need to step in and either force federal action through litigation or be prepared to set local rules that might accomplish the same thing.
Take, for example, The Clean Energy Jobs Act mandating that Maryland gets at least 25 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020 (up from 20 percent by 2022). Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed the bill. The General Assembly will need to override that veto when the next session begins in January. It’s the kind of incremental action Maryland can take to help push the U.S. toward climate change goals even if the Trump administration balks.
This isn’t the ideal solution, of course. Efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay require active participation by the EPA to make sure all states in the watershed meet targeted pollution reduction levels. Bay advocates have already expressed concern that Mr. Trump will abandon or weaken the so-called “pollution diet” and be lax on such things as stormwater runoff, wastewater treatment plants and farming.
And it’s particularly troubling that the U.S. may retreat on climate change even as world leaders are seeking stronger action. Even Chinese authorities this week openly mocked Mr. Trump’s skepticism, with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin reminding reporters that climate change negotiations can be traced back to Ronald Reagan. Maryland can’t do much on a global scale but it can start by making every effort — whether through the courts or the state legislature — to do our fair share to protect public health and safety.