Oliver Houck

One of the unusual drivers of the coming election is the demonization of an agency charged with protecting human health and the environment, the Environmental Protection Agency. As if on cue from party headquarters, hyperventilated by press releases and “studies” from entities that turn out to be industry hires, Republicans are now talking about putting EPA under “permanent investigation” should they win the Senate.  Adding his part, Louisiana’s Sen. David Vitter has assured a reporter that “we’ll keep the foot on their neck.”  A revealing image.

Where did this all come from? We do know from when: the advent of the Obama administration.  To be sure, oil, gas and other primary industries have chafed under laws designed to reduce their emissions since the l970’s, but never in such a relentless, ad hominem manner.  With Obama came a new EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson, a woman whom this region by any lights should admire.  Raised in the poorest ward in New Orleans, Jackson went on to become valedictorian of her high school class, an honors graduate of both Princeton and the Tulane School of Engineering (neither one of them patsies), and the director of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Quality.  New Jersey is an industrial state. There was no problem.

The problem came with the new Congress which, with less leverage over the President, chose Jackson as its scapegoat, launching no fewer than six investigations of Jackson’s agency within weeks of her taking office. It never let up. Criminal charges were bandied about, as were the phrases “Soviet Union” and “Gestapo” (getting their countries rather mixed).  At times the hearings resembled whoop-night at the frat house, middle-aged white men enraged that they could neither enrage her in return, nor deflect her from what federal law obligated her to do: protect the environment.  I have known few people in my life who could have survived this ordeal. None with her unfailing courtesy.

The fact is that throughout this administration EPA has been held in constant check by both the White House and industry litigation.  As former officials have written, the president’s Office of Management and Budget, driven by a free-marketeer, put everything EPA even thought about doing through a cost/benefit wringer that allowed only the slam dunks to emerge.  Those proposals that survived this gauntlet were then challenged in court by trade associations, cases with little hope on the merits but every hope to stall until a more favorable political day when the protections could be repealed and perhaps — oh, happy day! — the entire program as well.

If strangled environmental protection is what we want, we can have that happen very soon.

Which is one of the largest stakes in the coming election.  And a primary reason that industry money is pouring in to party coffers in such astonishingly large amounts, not accounting for the billions more pouring in from sources that, for the first time, thanks to Republican members of the Supreme Court, do not have to be disclosed at all. The Koch brothers, Olin Corporation and others have little stake in things like Obamacare, but a great deal riding on limits for coal emissions, chemical standards and other safeguards we count on for our health and lives.  Big stakes bring out big dollars.

Oddly, recent polls show clear majorities favoring clean air and water (even at increased cost).  In one survey an astonishing 74 percent agreed with “tougher enforcement” of government rules across the board. You would hardly know it around here. The drumbeat rolls on, new attacks and imaginary scandals per week: An EPA employee was apparently “watching porn” at the office!. (Might we see what is watched in the offices of Congress?)  Tuesday’s flash: EPA “talked with an environmental group” about climate change! (Want to know how many industries Republicans talk to?)  In a few days will come yet another barn-burner, keeping the troops roiled.

I received an email last week from the disgruntled owner of a small oil company who had a very good idea for reducing the industry’s impacts in the coastal zone. It soon became clear that it was the industry itself that would not listen to him.  His email however knew exactly what was wrong: “the EVA” (sic), the demon stifling our initiatives. He couldn’t have been more off-base, right down to the acronym, but he was beyond rethinking it. The hype had worked.

We now have a choice.  If EPA did not exist we would have to invent something like it or accept the consequences — which would be grim.  Look at conditions in China. The Senate the Republicans seek to win may not be able to accomplish that, but they will be able to hog-tie the agency with “permanent investigations” and running invective — by keeping “the foot on their neck.”  If strangled environmental protection is what we want, we can have that happen very soon.

Of course, we can also choose a different outcome.

Oliver A. Houck is a professor of law at Tulane University. He may be reached at ohouck@tulane.edu.