|March 07, 2016|
Republican candidates' calls to scrap EPA met with skepticism by experts
|Amid prolonged bickering with his rivals, Donald Trump outlined a fairly radical proposal during Thursday's Republican debate: to scrap the US Environmental Protection Agency.|
Typically there was little policy detail. But it was clear that the EPA -- and its $8bn budget -- would be on the chopping block should the Republican frontrunner become president.
"Environmental protection -- we waste all of this money," he said. "We're going to bring that back to the states. We are going to cut many of the agencies, we will balance our budget and we will be dynamic again."
The promise was an echo of recent statements from Trump on the EPA. He has said there is "tremendous cutting" to be done because the EPA "aren't doing their job, they are making it impossible for our country to compete".
He has also accused the EPA of "going around causing damage as opposed to saving damage", leading to "a tremendous amounts of money, tremendous fraud, tremendous abuse".
Trump's plan to dissolve the EPA and hand environmental protection duties to the states goes further than his main rivals for the GOP nomination, but anti-EPA sentiment appears to run deep in both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
Cruz has called the EPA a "radical" agency that has imposed "illegal" limits on greenhouse gases from power plants. "I think states should press back using every tool they have available," the Texas senator has said. "We've got to rein in a lawless executive that is abusing its power."
Rubio has said the EPA's plan to curb emissions would have a "devastating impact" on jobs; he has also vowed to scale back the Clean Water Act.
"Regulations in this country are out of control, especially the Employment Prevention Agency, the EPA," Rubio said in January.
Trump would appear to have some support for abolishing the EPA within Congress -- Iowa Republican senator Joni Ernst, for example, has said the regulator should be scrapped because "the state knows best how to protect resources".
Scrapping the EPA, however, would cause an unravelling of basic protections of air and water. Environmental law experts argue it would also be difficult to achieve anyway.
The agency, formed in 1970 under Richard Nixon, is empowered to administer federal standards under the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. It has also been responsible for controlling or banning chemicals such as the pesticide DDT.
Robert Percival, director of the environmental law program at the University of Maryland, said ditching the EPA was a "ridiculous idea".
"It reflects a lack of understanding over the US legal system, you'd have to fundamentally repeal or change all our environmental laws," he said.
"The EPA sets national standards and then the states come up with a plan on how to implement them. One reason this is done is to avoid a race to the bottom, so that states don't relax regulations over air or water to attract industry.
"California could do a decent job maybe because it has such a large environmental agency but smaller states wouldn't be able to perform those functions.
"Trump is demagoguing. It plays to the far-right base but it would have enormous consequences for people's health."
Supporters of the EPA point to evidence that the agency has helped save a huge amount of money, as well as prevented many deaths. A 2012 study estimated that the Clean Air Act alone has saved $22tn in healthcare costs during its lifetime.
"The EPA pays for itself and our environmental laws have been enormously successful," said Percival.
"We don't have the environmental problems China does, with its smogs and its polluted drinking water. China doesn't have a centralized regulator like the EPA, with 15,000 employees to enforce national standards. We'd be setting ourselves up for an environmental disaster."
EPA "overreach" has been a long-held bugbear of some Republicans, some of whom believe the toxic water crisis in Flint, Michigan, is evidence that the agency is failing.
Congressional hearings into Flint are being used to put pressure on Gina McCarthy, the EPA's administrator. But the idea of shutting down the entire agency may be a step too far for some Republicans.
Patrick Parenteau, senior counsel at the Vermont Law School, said the idea was "preposterous".
"I wouldn't dignify it with a serious reply," he said. "Maybe 'grow up'."