Energy Foundation Board Member William Ruckelshaus shared his perspective on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in a New York Times op-ed published March 7. Ruckelshaus speaks from experience when he offers advice on running the EPA: He was the agency’s first administrator when it was formed in 1970, serving in that role for three years under President Nixon. In 1983, President Reagan appointed him to serve as the fifth EPA administrator, and he served until 1985. He has served on Energy Foundation’s Board of Directors since 2009. In 2016, Ruckelshaus co-authored an op-ed on the Clean Power Plan with fellow former EPA Administrator William Reilly (here). — Eric Heitz
By WILLIAM D. RUCKELSHAUS | MARCH 7, 2017
[As appeared in the New York Times]
In March 1983, President Ronald Reagan asked me to return to Washington to run the Environmental Protection Agency. I had been the E.P.A.’s first administrator, from 1970 to 1973, and over the agency’s first 10 years, it made enormous progress in bringing the country’s worst pollution problems under control despite resistance from polluting industries and their lobbyists. A worried and outraged public had demanded action, and the government responded.
Yet the agency and its central mission came under attack during the 1980 presidential campaign. The Clean Air Act was criticized as an obstacle to growth. The agency was seen as bloated, inefficient, exceeding its congressional mandates and costing jobs. The Reagan administration and its new administrator were going to fix that. Sound familiar?
The E.P.A. I returned to in the spring of 1983, some 28 months into President Reagan’s first term, was dispirited and in turmoil. Its administrator, Anne M. Gorsuch, had been cited for contempt of Congress. Its budget had been reduced by almost 25 percent, with more cuts promised. Staffing had been slashed.
There were internal conflicts, resignations of key officials, complaints of documents being destroyed and reports of secret meetings with officials from companies under investigation by the agency. One political appointee, Rita Lavelle, was facing accusations of lying to Congress, for which she would later be convicted.
And voters were taking notice. President Reagan discovered that government backsliding on protecting Americans’ health and the environment would not be tolerated by an awakened, angry and energized public.
While I awaited Senate confirmation hearings that April, several chemical industry chief executives asked to meet with me. I expected to hear complaints that over-regulation was stifling economic growth, just as I had heard 10 years earlier.
Instead, I was stunned by their message. The public, they told me, was spooked about the turmoil at E.P.A. Americans didn’t believe anything was being done to protect their health and the environment. They didn’t believe the E.P.A., and they didn’t believe the chemical industry. These executives had concluded that they needed a confident, fair and independent E.P.A. They knew that an environmental agency trusted by the public to do its job gave their businesses a public license to operate.
A strong and credible regulatory regime is essential to the smooth functioning of our economy. Unless people believe their health and the environment are being safeguarded, they will withdraw their permission for companies to do business. The chemical industry executives who came in to see me that day felt this loss of public support and were asking me to reassure Americans that the government would do its job to protect them.
Our collective freedom and well-being depends on a set of restraints that govern society and how it operates. Those restraints need to be clear and effective. They were not in 1983.
The E.P.A.’s new administrator, Scott Pruitt, comes to his job with this historical backdrop. Are there changes that can be made to improve how the agency operates? Certainly. But those changes can never be seen as undercutting or abandoning the E.P.A.’s basic mission. That was the mistake made during the early Reagan years and why I was asked to return.
One of the factors leading to the creation of E.P.A. was the recognition that without a set of federal standards to protect public health from environmental pollution, states would continue to compete for industrial development by taking short cuts on environmental protection. The laws that the E.P.A. administers create a strong federal-state partnership that has worked well for over 40 years. The federal government sets the standards and the states enforce them, with the E.P.A. stepping in only if the states default on their responsibilities.
Budget cuts that hurt programs that states now have in place to meet those duties run the risk of returning us to a time when some states offered industries a free lunch, creating havens for polluters. This could leave states with strong environmental programs supported by the public at a competitive disadvantage compared to states with weak programs. In other words, it could lead to a race to the bottom.
Voters may have supported Donald J. Trump believing his campaign rhetoric about the E.P.A. But they don’t want their kids choking on polluted air or drinking tainted water any more than Hillary Clinton voters, and as soon as the agency stops doing its job, they’re going to be up in arms.
To me, the E.P.A. represents one of the clearest examples of our political system listening and responding to the American people. The public will tolerate changes that allow the agency to meet its mandated goals more efficiently and effectively. They will not tolerate changes that threaten their health or the precious environment.
These are the lessons President Reagan learned in 1983. We would all do well to heed them.
William D. Ruckelshaus was the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan.