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Republican EPA Chief Speaks Out On Looming Environmental Cuts09:48

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Christine Todd Whitman in Miami in November 2015. (Aaron Davidson/Getty Images for Eisenhower Fellowships)closemore
Christine Todd Whitman in Miami in November 2015. (Aaron Davidson/Getty Images for Eisenhower Fellowships)

The Environmental Protection Agency is bracing for major changes under the Trump administration. During the campaign, Trump said he wanted to eliminate the EPA entirely. He later backed off that proposal.

His nominee to lead the agency, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, was part of a coalition of state attorneys general suing to stop the agency’s Clean Power Plan, one of the key parts of former President Obama's strategy to combat climate change.

Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson talks about the transition with Christine Todd Whitman (@govctw), former governor of New Jersey and administrator of the EPA from 2001 to 2003 under president George W. Bush.

Interview Highlights

On how President Trump's freeze on regulations and executive orders might affect the EPA

"Frankly, the freezing isn't a surprise. You always want to put a hold on the things that are moving that the last administration pushed out at the very end, what they always called, everybody called 'the ugly babies,' and you need to make sure that those comport with how you want to do business. It's the two-for-one [executive order] that bothers me that most. I mean it's one thing to say, 'Look, we need to scrub our regulations. We need to make sure that those that we have in place are doing the jobs they're supposed to do, that they haven't outlived their usefulness, that they are not holding back our ability to grow as a country, economically, but two-for-one just doesn't make a whole lot of sense, because there's just not a bucket somewhere sitting with useless regulations. When regulations are enacted, it is either, usually, because of a lawsuit that required that those steps be taken, a finding by a court — that there is an endangerment finding, that there is a problem that is problematic for human health or the environment — or that science has discovered as they have done more and more work that these things are bad for human health and the environment. And, what you don't want to do is to say, 'Well we're just gonna not move forward with any new regulations because we can't find a regulation that we think is irrelevant.'"

On regulations at the EPA and how they play out

"When I was there, a holdover regulation from the Clinton administration was to greatly reduce the carbon emissions from diesel engines on cars, which I took a look at and said, 'Yes, this is important because diesel is polluting and it is bad for human health.' But then a scientist said to me, 'Look, what's even more polluting are the non-road diesel engines — tractors, backhoes, that kind of thing.' People said you can't do that, that is going after the Republican base, it's labor, too, it's work, it's everything, and members on the Hill said there isn't a company that can actually produce an engine that reduces the emissions the way you want to. And frankly, we did a little more work and found a major company that said 'Yes we can do this,' and we did it and the regulation is now in place and diesel emissions have been reduced by over 95 percent.

"It took work, there was always pushback, but if you look at what the impact is for human health — when you consider that for the most recent year for which we have the full data, which is 2013, 91,000 people in this country died because of dirty, airborne related diseases. That's almost three times as many people as died on the road that year. This is an issue. This is a serious problem for human health, and you don't want to stop pursuing the healthiest course. Again, we have proven over time that we can do this and keep our economy going, and you don't want to just have a blanket, sort of mindless stop."

"This is an issue. This is a serious problem for human health, and you don't want to stop pursuing the healthiest course."

Christie Todd Whitman

On why the EPA has become an enemy to some

"A regulation usually requires people to spend money or change behavior on a problem they may not see. For instance, when we were working on water and trying to ensure that we had clean water, you had ranchers who were running their cattle right into the stream or dumping their manure right close to a stream, which wasn't a problem for them, their water was good, but downstream it became a real problem. And you had municipal utilities downstream were gonna have to spend — or private utilities — that were gonna have to spend literally thousands of dollars, hundreds of thousands of dollars, to get to the clean water standards. What we said is 'look, if you pay a couple of thousand dollars to the rancher to help him find a different way to handle his manure, as long as you get the water to the standard that's safe for people to consume, who cares how you do it? And this is a much less expensive way so neither you nor your rate-payers have to pay that extra money.' So you can be creative, you can make it happen."

On critics of the EPA who say the states should control these regulations

"As in the example with water, it runs downhill, and it doesn't stop at your place and your boundary line or your state line. The same with air — Mother Nature never really cared a whole lot for geopolitical boundaries, so this is something, this is where the federal government, to my mind, is to set the floor as to what is the basic standard for safety for human health and the environment. If a state wants to be more proactive, if the state wants to raise that standard, make it even higher, make it more protective, let them have it, let them do it. If you believe in states' rights, that's where they come in, but you cannot say that water or air stop at a state's boundaries. They don't, and so you've got to take and understand the impact amongst the other states."

On Scott Pruitt, Trump's pick for EPA leadership

"Well, I mean, I don't know quite what to make of him. He certainly has sued the EPA on a number of occasions and actually lost most of them, but he's won a couple. And he was going after the endangerment finding on clean air on carbon as an attorney general, and yet in his confirmation hearings, he showed deference to the Supreme Court, which was nice of him, but he said he wouldn't the endangerment finding. So, he was sounding very balanced in his confirmation hearing. I don't know which is Scott Pruitt. And of course at the end of the day, in all fairness to him, he serves at the pleasure of the president and he does what the president will tell him to do. He's gonna have to. He should give him his best advice, he should tell him when he thinks he's making a mistake, when an issue is more complicated or the fallout could be more serious than hasn't been anticipated by the administration, and I think we can see recently that sometimes they don't anticipate everything. After that, if the president still wants to do it a certain way, then he has to salute or else step aside."

This segment aired on January 31, 2017.

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