Just a few days in office, the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency hosted an early Sunday morning breakfast for 11 Western governors. Scott Pruitt told them face-to-face what he’s said repeatedly since he was nominated: Under his leadership, the EPA will defer to states much more than it has in the recent past.
Pruitt made a similar vow to profoundly transform the agency the day before at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). “We’re going to once again pay attention to the states across this country,” Pruitt told a gathering of Republicans. “The future ain’t what it used to be at the EPA.”
This message resonated with the Western governors, regardless of their political affiliations, according to several members of the governors’ staffs. Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, a Republican-turned-Independent whose state is 66 percent federal land, was “encouraged by (Pruitt’s) emphasis on state’s rights,” Grace Jang, Walker’s communications director, says.
The Western governors’ unanimity is striking in an era of intense partisanship and reflects the commitment they have to work together through the Western Governors’ Association. The breakfast was an annual event of that group, a rare hub of bipartisanship and consensus building in a polarized nation. The governors are in the midst of a major effort to transform the relationship between the federal and state governments to give them more input into federal regulations.
“The Republican governors were on the same page with their Democratic colleagues in telling Pruitt, we want it to be a partnership,” says John Swartout, senior policy advisor to Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat. “We haven’t been happy that the EPA hasn’t always treated us as a full partner. We can make progress together.”
As they ate scrambled eggs, bacon, fried potatoes and donuts at a square table in EPA’s Washington, DC, headquarters, the governors one-by-one told Pruitt their priorities. Over the course of two hours, many mentioned their desire to have more sway over federal environmental regulations.
Western governors have collaborated for about 100 years. Their desire to present a unified voice to Washington is driven in part because of the vast amount of federal land in the West, which means decisions made in Washington have acute impacts on their states’ economies. “It’s largely a function of being so distant from Washington and needing to amplify their distant voices,” said Jim Ogsbury, executive director of the group.
In the Western Governors’ Association, the governors focus on shared objectives and pass joint resolutions. In December, for instance, they passed a resolution calling for a greater role in crafting federal regulations and in other decisions by the federal government. Other resolutions present their consensus positions on a wide range of issues, including endangered species, wildfire fire management, invasive species and abandoned mine cleanups.
Western governors from both parties felt the Obama administration’s EPA failed to adequately consult the states as it crafted some important environmental regulations, such as the 2015 Clean Water Rule. (That rule was temporarily blocked in 2015, pending resolution of a court challenge brought by industry groups and 31 states.) “Had the EPA worked with us on the rule upfront it could have been a better rule,” Swartout says. EPA did address some comments the governors made about how the proposed rule impinged on state authority over water management, but not all of them.
Just this week, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to launch a rollback of that rule and, until it’s rewritten, limit federal oversight to waterways that are navigable, leaving the rest to the states. Pruitt announced that he would rescind the Obama rule and write a new one that “restores the states’ important role in the regulation of water.”
“We believe (Pruitt’s EPA) will partner with states in a way that’s meaningful; in a way that quite frankly the previous administration did not,” says Nephi Cole, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead’s policy advisor policy.
Many scholars caution that undoing that rule will be particularly detrimental in the arid West, where so many small streams and those that run only intermittently are crucially important for wildlife and water quality and quantity. States tend to be more responsive to local industries, because of the benefits they bring to the economy like jobs and tax revenue.
But Cole argues that it’s a “false narrative” to suggest that giving states more control equates to allowing more pollution and less environmental protection. In another resolution adopted in December, Western governors assert that they want to be the ones to decide how to balance the needs of industry in their states and the requirements of the Clean Water Act.
During the two-hour breakfast, Pruitt spent most of the time listening to governors. (Most years, the secretaries of Interior, Agriculture, Energy and other cabinet members important to Western states attend the breakfast, but as of Sunday, Pruitt was the only one of those who had been confirmed by the Senate.) Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper urged Pruitt to personally engage in the Gold King Mine controversy. A 2015 blowout at the mine unleashed a surge of acid mine drainage down the Animas River. Pruitt committed to visiting Colorado and meeting with local and state officials, Swartout says.
A big priority for some governors is that the EPA continues to negotiate settlements with companies responsible for creating toxic waste sites covered under Superfund.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, urged Pruitt to move forward with the plan to clean up the Portland Harbor, a Superfund site, so the city can revitalize the waterfront and create jobs. She also stressed her state’s continued commitment to fighting climate change, according to her press secretary, Bryan Hockaday.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who heads the Western Governors’ Association, wants Pruitt to keep the pressure on to finally reach a settlement on the Superfund sites in and around Butte, Montana, where historic copper mining and smelting left behind the nation’s largest toxic waste site, according to his press secretary, Marissa Perry. After many years, negotiations between the EPA and Atlantic Richfield Corporation, owned by BP, have picked up steam. Bullock wants to make sure the momentum isn’t lost.
While the Western governors break out of the hyper-partisanship that’s plagued other branches of government and see some opportunity to work with Pruitt, potential major budget cuts to the EPA may give Pruitt a lot less leeway to respond to state needs.
This week, the White House sent agencies an outline of the president’s draft budget that reportedly would gut the EPA’s $8 billion budget, cutting by 30 percent the grants it sends to the states to implement air, water and toxic waste regulations. Pruitt told E&E News that he’s asking the White House to retain more funding for the states to improve air quality, clean up Superfund sites and improve aging water and wastewater infrastructure. Programs slated for zero funding include grants to clean up abandoned industrial sites and funding to bring safe drinking water and sewer systems to Native villages in Alaska, according to the Washington Post. More details on the budget are expected later this month. It’s not clear if the White House can win approval for its vision of a much smaller EPA.
The proof of whether the governors and Pruitt will be able to work together will emerge in coming months, as the Trump administration pursues its agenda and rolls back existing rules. “We’re trying to work with him. We need to work with the federal government,” Swartout says. “It’s too early to know. We have to see how it all plays out. It’s just speculation at this point.”
Correspondent Elizabeth Shogren writes HCN’s DC Dispatches from Washington. This story originally appeared in High Country News on March 3, 2017.
Photo credit: Eric Vance/EPA