Bad policy decisions are creating a perfect storm for government whistleblowers


President Trump is going to save the coal industry. Or so he claims.

Disregarding for a moment the apparent intention to do so at the expense of everything and everyone else, it is clear that it is an unwinnable battle. Although climate change denier and current EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt formalized his long-known intentions to eliminate regulation of the coal industry via the Clean Power Plan (CPP) with inapt bravado last month, the industry itself has long known of its own decline. Actively ignoring science and progress to keep a dying industry on life support puts human health, the environment, and the economy at risk.

Whistleblowers guard against waste, fraud, abuse, illegality, and threats to human health and the environment, both in government and in the private sector. Under the strain of the current assault on evidence-based policymaking, the dykes holding back a flood of whistleblowers are bound to fail.

A crusade against progress

The administration’s energy policies represent attacks on science, human health, and the environment. They include opening huge new swaths of ocean and public land for exploitation by fossil fuel companies, attempts to replace high-ranking government scientists with non-scientists, and gagging EPA employees, shuttering EPA websites, and censoring climate and other scientific data. (See Climate Science and Policy Watch’s recent post, here.) Even former two-time Republican-appointed EPA head William Ruckelshaus says that Pruitt is failing in his obligations to protect the public and to provide transparency.

No single action may so clearly demonstrate the wrongheadedness of Pruitt as his determination to dismantle the CPP – part of an effort, he says, to end the “war on coal.” Pruitt refuses to accept that the coal industry is in decline because it is incapable of competing in the contemporary energy market.

Actual coal jobs have been dwindling fairly steadily – peaking at around 860,000 in the 1920s, to just over 50,000 today – as technology has rendered miners increasingly unnecessary. That it is a dangerous job is not even the issue – although the danger is noteworthy, especially as coal companies have regularly lapsed in their obligations to their workers (see here and here, for example), leaving a wake of victims and victims’ families.

Rather, the bigger issue facing the coal industry is competition – the bedrock upon which free-market capitalists base their notions. That bedrock is, appropriately enough, riddled with holes: government subsidies, public misinformation, and externalized costs, for example – all things that put an invisible thumb on the scales, and render the market something other than entirely free.

Pruitt argues that the Obama Administration had abused its power in order to “pick winners and losers.” He did not explain how his decision to nix the CPP is not doing precisely that in propping up a moribund industry. He did not explain why subsidizing fossil fuel companies is acceptable while subsidizing renewable energy companies is not. He did not explain how misleading the public to believe that greenhouse gasses (GHGs) pose no threat is an acceptable method for building support for a doomed energy policy. He did not explain why the lives that his own Agency admits would be saved by enacting the CPP are expendable. He did not explain why science – along with law, economics, and ethics – has no place in his decision-making process.

But even in Pruitt’s free-market fantasy world, coal cannot keep up with cheap natural gas and ever-more-available renewable energy. And most people are happy that way; even natural gas, which is far less clean than the industry would like us to believe, doesn’t cause black lung disease. Moreover, while fracking brings with it its own litany of environmental horrors, they are generally less visible than decapitated mountains. (Whether earthquakes and potential poisons in our aquifers are preferable to mine collapses and mercury in our rivers is a question for another time. But – spoiler alert – the answer is that both coal and natural gas must be phased out. The former, at least, will ultimately do so of its own accord.)

But Scott Pruitt has decided that temporarily saving mining jobs is politically wiser than retraining miners to fill some of the tens of thousands of renewable energy jobs that are becoming available. Miners themselves have sadly been deluded into believing that their industry can be saved, foregoing retraining opportunities that have already been offered. Nonetheless, employment opportunities in renewable energy, which are not fraught with the health risks inherent to coal mining, will continue to expand despite the administration’s efforts.

Short-term, short-sighted gains are the only up side

This crusade to save a dying industry – one that wreaks havoc on the environment and the health of all those it touches – is the cornerstone of the administration’s pro-fossil-fuel deregulatory plan. This is largely because blue-collar coal workers are far more sympathetic than the wealthy executives in the fossil fuel and other industries who are the only conceivable beneficiaries of broad, unfocused, ill-conceived schemes to eliminate two existing government regulations for each new one put forward.

In the short term, some miners can keep their jobs, and coal executives might squeeze some more profits out of their mines. In the long term, the executives will close their mines and the miners will lose their jobs (or retire early because of ill health, or injury) because other fuel sources will be cheaper and cleaner, and provide more and better jobs.

The “best case” for the coal industry is that, with the help of deregulation and subsidies (including a tax-payer-funded bailout of the coal and nuclear energy industries), some states will choose to build new coal power plants – which will be obsolete before construction even begins, but which will oblige states to keep feeding them coal to offset construction costs for years to come. While the cost of providing increasingly expensive coal to these pollution machines will inflate energy bills, other states – where renewable energy investment has not been artificially delayed – will thrive, pulling away taxpayers who prefer to live someplace with cleaner air and lower energy bills.

The plan to “save coal” should be an economic no-go based on this alone. But that is only one aspect of one piece of the puzzle.

Legally, scientifically, economically, and ethically indefensible

Scott Pruitt wants to scrap the CPP based on an apparent misunderstanding of administrative law. Federal agencies may be legally obliged to perform specific functions. In the case of EPA, these include developing and enforcing regulations under the Clean Air Act (CAA). Pruitt claims that EPA is exceeding its mandate by regulating GHGs, although the Supreme Court has already determined that the agency has an obligation under the CAA to regulate GHGs as pollutants if they clearly impact air quality and human health – the protections for which the CAA was created.

Scott Pruitt disagrees with the Supreme Court, which he is entitled to do even if he appears foolish doing so. But because EPA’s own research, subsequent to the Supreme Court’s ruling, determined that GHGs qualify as a pollutant under the terms of the CAA, any argument against using the CAA to regulate GHGs would need substantial evidence to back it up. And the scientific evidence to refute EPA’s own findings does not exist.

Any invented, misinterpreted, or cherry-picked data claiming climate change is not caused in any way by human activity will be buried under the mountains of data demonstrating the close connection between the burning of fossil fuels and the continuing rise in global temperatures. “Nuh-uh” is not an adequate counterargument.

Furthermore, an increase in extreme weather events is also linked more and more convincingly with the overall warming attributable to GHG emission. That brings us back to the economic arguments. The cost of continued reliance on coal and other dirty fuels will be felt in the expensive consequences of climate change impacts, like sea level rise and more intense tropical storms and rainfall. The public will increasingly demand accountability for these long-externalized costs.

Until such time as fossil fuel companies are forced to pay up for their deliberate ignorance of scientific evidence and their decades-long effort to mislead the public into believing that this threat does not exist, we, the public, will be paying to clean up Florida, Texas, Louisiana, Puerto Rico, and every other state, territory, and region impacted by storms whose intensity is magnified by warmer ocean waters. The cost of cleaning up after such disasters is sure to outweigh any short-term savings or profits the industry may see.

The value in “saving the coal industry” not only pales when compared to the cost, it also sets up the United States for long-term economic decline, as we invest money, time, and other resources in clinging to our outdated institutions and infrastructure rather than supporting the innovations necessary for a sustainable economy. Simultaneously, uncertainty about how court-mandated GHG regulation will be carried out leaves the energy industry and its investors in a trepid limbo. Ultimately, China, Germany, and other countries will leave the United States playing catch-up, and we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

While policy choices are given considerable latitude, there still must be some sound reasoning behind decisions that present clearly adverse impacts to the American people (not to mention the rest of the planet). It makes no sense to string miners along to save jobs that are likely to kill them, or to prop up industries that contribute to environmental degradation and destabilize the climate. Ignoring the threats posed by rising tides and the destruction of ecosystems from the Arctic and Antarctic to the Tropics – and, indeed, generally ignoring scientific consensus on the impacts of GHG emissions – is indefensible. There are no ethical justifications for this administration’s environmental and energy policies.

The stalling game

Scott Pruitt knows that simply axing the CPP is not an option, which is why he is playing a waiting game rather than putting forth a proposal for its replacement. He is refusing to implement the Plan.

The Trump Administration asked the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit to cease its review of the CPP while Pruitt’s EPA supposedly conducts its own. Given science deniers’ propensity to cherry pick data that supports their predetermined conclusions, it will be interesting to see if frustrated EPA employees will be able to construct a report that meets the requisite level of scientific inaccuracy.

The process of creating a rule that satisfies industry (rather than one that protects the environment and human health) will likely proceed as follows: The ongoing first stage would delay or cancel any and all implementation of Obama-era environmental regulations. Then, rather than propose a different rule to address GHG emissions, Pruitt’s EPA will then seek input from “the public” to decide on a possible course of action.

As recommendations flood in, the agency will once again ignore those coming from scientists or organizations interested in protecting human health and the environment, but will again listen intently to most anything coming from the fossil fuel industry, or from whomever is currently pumping millions of dollars into bogus, cherry-picked notions of “research” that justify the goals of that industry.

As the process continues, Trump and Pruitt will likely cite reports that exaggerate job figures or fabricate other benefits in favor of coal, oil, and gas, while downplaying or ignoring gains in renewable energy jobs and associated health and environmental benefits.

While scientists, environmental organizations, concerned members of the public, and EPA’s own employees decry the abandonment of reason and empathy by this administration, watch for President Trump to call climate science “fake news,” and for Scott Pruitt to claim that he is helping working people by destroying their planet.

The public deserves the truth

The good news is that Scott Pruitt will be hard-pressed to undo the impacts of the CPP; states and corporations are already moving away from dirty energy, and economic reality will prevent a long-term resurgence in coal’s popularity.

The bad news is that even the federal agency with “environmental protection” in its name is being used as a tool to destroy the environment – and risk our health and our economy in the process. By delaying action on curbing coal-power pollution, Pruitt is putting lives at risk not only through climate impacts, but also directly through diseases caused by coal plant emissions, all while moving the United States toward the back of the line in energy innovation.

But there is other good news. Insiders – career public servants who believe in their agency’s mission – will feel increasingly obliged to come forward with evidence of deliberate disregard of risks to public health and safety. The damage Pruitt can do will be limited to what he and his allies can get away with.

EPA career employees speaking to GAP investigators – off the record, for fear of retaliation – say they feel stifled, that there is a leadership vacuum, and that reports they have assembled that raise issues of climate change are scrapped, ignored, and buried. While agency heads may choose what information to share and build upon and what to push aside, these decisions must have some rational basis, and must be consistent with the mission of the agency in question. Keeping important information from the public in order to maintain the status quo for the fossil fuel industries represents not only an ethical failure, but also a waste of taxpayer funds for the time and resources spent on reports that never see the light of day.

Put simply, it is not appropriate for the Environmental Protection Agency to disregard information affecting the protection of the environment. If appointees within EPA are quashing important research – as agencies and administrations have been known to do (see GAP’s report on the previous National Climate Assessment) – this may amount to scientific fraud if deliberate efforts are made to contradict the information contained in those reports. Given that the latest National Climate Assessment contradicts the weak arguments against anthropogenic climate change put forth by various administration officials including the President himself, the tension between career government scientists and appointed climate change deniers is becoming increasingly palpable.

Given the inherent risk to human health and the environment, Pruitt’s actions could have EPA whistleblowers coming out of the woodwork.

As demonstrated by Joel Clement in the Department of the Interior, bad policy decisions fertilize a verdant breeding ground for whistleblowers. The frustrated civil servants at the Environmental Protection Agency will increasingly reject – vocally and publicly – the notion that their job is not to Protect the Environment.