Republican Who Led the EPA Urges Confronting Trump on Climate

William K. Reilly, a Republican and one-time head of the EPA, is dismayed that a climate change skeptic has been named to lead his former agency. But in a Yale e360 interview, he insists environmental progress can be made despite resistance from the Trump administration.

William K. Reilly, who was head of the Environmental Protection Agency under President George H.W. Bush, is blunt in his assessment of the climate change deniers and anti-regulatory hawks who have been nominated to fill many of President-elect Donald J. Trump’s top environmental posts. Reilly, a Republican, looks with special alarm upon Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, nominated to run the EPA. 

William K. Reilly

William K. Reilly

“For a prospective EPA administrator to doubt or even contest a conclusion that 11 national academies of science have embraced is willful political obstruction,” says Reilly. “Science is the secular religion underlying everything EPA does, and one who cannot rely on it, or is determinedly contemptuous of it, cannot effectively lead the agency or serve as the country’s environmental conscience.” 

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Reilly discusses how Trump administration threats to cut funding for NASA climate change research represent a “reckless head-in-the-sand posture,” explains why he believes former Exxon CEO and Secretary-of-State nominee Rex Tillerson may be one of the more enlightened environmental voices in the new administration, assesses how large states and other nations such as China can lead the climate battle, and urges EPA employees to stay and fight for the environment. “I would not advocate that committed people leave,” says Reilly. “We need them now more than ever.” 

Yale Environment 360: You are a Republican and an environmentalist. Which was more important to you in the past election? And how do you view the appointment of Scott Pruitt as the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency? 

William Reilly: I decided several elections ago that I could no longer support a presidential candidate who rejected the science on climate change. Republican presidential candidates up through John McCain in 2008 did accept the science, and McCain was even the lead GOP sponsor of the climate bill, McCain-Lieberman, in the Senate. For a prospective EPA administrator to doubt or even contest a conclusion that 11 national academies of science have embraced is willful political obstruction. By all reports, Scott Pruitt is a highly intelligent lawyer and he has cited no alternative scientific authority that disputes mainstream science. Science is the secular religion underlying everything EPA does, and one who cannot rely on it, or is determinedly contemptuous of it, cannot effectively lead the agency or serve as the country’s environmental conscience, which is EPA’s unique mission.

e360: What was your first thought when you heard that Scott Pruitt will lead the agency? 

Reilly: There has never been a more explicit and opposing interpretation of the authority and responsibility of EPA by an EPA nominee. Scott Pruitt has petitioned to reverse President Obama’s Clean Power rule to reduce CO2 from electric generating plants. These account for about a third of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, and so the rule is one of the major pillars of the U.S. effort to avert catastrophic climate change. I have submitted a legal brief vigorously disputing Pruitt’s interpretation of the law and the very role of EPA on climate. 

“One hopes that in four years someone claiming to be a Republican environmentalist won’t make people laugh.”

e360: Mr. Pruitt has sued the agency because it attempted to reduce methane emissions. Do you see that as a conflict of interest? 

Reilly: I would not argue that Pruitt is conflicted because he has sued to overturn EPA’s methane rule. Lawyers argue cases, defend positions, represent clients — it’s what they do. The key question for Pruitt in his Senate confirmation is, what does he believe and propose to do as EPA administrator to reduce methane emissions? Many energy companies are working to reduce them. Does he have an alternative to the rule? Are these emissions tolerable? 

e360: How painful is Trump’s environmental policy for somebody like you who is both an environmentalist and a Republican? 

Reilly: One hopes that in four years someone claiming to be a Republican environmentalist won’t make people laugh. A Republican — President Nixon — created the EPA precisely to avert a race to the bottom by states competing for polluting industries. Trump’s environmental positions, judging from the Republican Party platform and his campaign statements — climate change is a hoax conceived by the Chinese, the EPA should be dismantled and its authorities transferred to the states — would roll back the clock. 

e360: How was it possible that the Republicans stopped listening to scientific advice? 

Reilly: This begins with the traditional conservative wariness about excesses of government and costs of regulation. The Tea Party, the coal mining industry and its workers, industry spokesmen who have blamed their decline on pollution controls, nativists who fear loss of sovereignty from the Paris agreements — all that is involved. 

e360: Who is the driving force within the Republican Party? 

Reilly: When I have asked Republican Congress members who fully understand climate change but are constrained by constituent pressures, who is it that feels so strongly opposed to climate initiatives, they tell me it’s evangelicals. Evangelicals constitute something like a third of GOP voters, and they voted 80 percent for Donald Trump. Hence Republican office holders from the Southwest, for example, say that they would be defeated in their primaries if they were to vote for carbon regulation. 

e360: Do you think that the climate- and Earth-monitoring programs the U.S. government runs through agencies like NASA, NOAA, or EPA will survive four years of Trump? 

Reilly: There will undoubtedly be efforts to muzzle them. The entire world will lose something very valuable if that is allowed to happen. Much of the science on climate — on causes, chemistry, and measuring climate change — has been done by U.S. agencies: NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], NASA, NCAR [the National Center for Atmospheric Research], EPA. The budgets and priorities of these agencies must be watched very carefully for they are likely to represent countervailing opinions to the administration’s climate deniers, and they won’t like it. 

e360: Speaking of NASA, what is your opinion about plans to cut its Earth-monitoring programs? 

Reilly: Cuts in NASA’s Earth monitoring program would be so destructive, a reckless head-in-the-sand posture that says, “If we don’t look, then nothing bad will happen.” 

e360: If you were an EPA official — would you consider quitting? Do you have any advice? 

Reilly: When I took office as EPA administrator in 1989, the environment had not been a priority for the eight years of the Reagan administration. However, after a scandalous two years when Reagan had a deregulator running EPA, the ship was righted and some good things got done, including the Montreal Protocol [to protect the ozone layer]. I had the good fortune to inherit many fine civil servants who had weathered the storm of attempted relaxation of environmental protections, and I was frankly amazed and impressed that some of the best people had stayed at the agency through the darkest years, even as their leader was fired and one senior official went to prison. So I would not advocate that committed people leave. We need them now more than ever! 

“If there is anything positive to say, I suppose it is to acknowledge that the president-elect is not an ideologue.”

e360: What will happen to U.S. renewable energy and to the Paris climate treaty now? 

Reilly: Last year, 60 percent of new solar installations were utility grade — that represents a breakthrough. I believe there is enough support in the Congress and the states to protect renewables, which are becoming competitive now. California, Texas, and other states will continue to support renewables. The good news in America is that the country is decarbonizing. The success of fracking, the resulting plentiful supply and low price of natural gas, is displacing coal and leading to annual stable or even decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, all without the Clean Power rule. 

e360: If Donald Trump puts his promises into effect, how will this affect the global efforts to limit climate change? 

Reilly: One has to hope that the European Union and China stay the course set in Paris if Trump disavows the commitments. I was in Beijing recently and spoke with senior government officials. Pollution reduction is a major source of public anger and concern and as coal consumption comes down and pollution is reduced, so too will CO2. I worry more about India, which has been explicit that it will require outside financing if it’s to reduce its carbon footprint and honor its promises made in Paris. 

e360: Can you imagine an outside event that might change the current course of the Trump administration? 

Reilly: I have long believed that, unfortunately, a catastrophe will be necessary to jolt American opinion to demand the urgent and sweeping measures required to avert severe inhospitable weather. American politics can turn on a dime. George Bush, who served for eight years as Ronald Reagan’s vice president, is the same man who promised in his campaign to be “the environmental president” and who appointed me, the president of the World Wildlife Fund at the time, as his EPA administrator, and who initiated a fabulously successful and cost-effective clean air law. 

e360: Are there positive aspects of Donald Trump’s environmental agenda? 

Reilly: If there is anything positive to say, I suppose it is to acknowledge that the president-elect is not an ideologue, is not apparently a fervent climate denier, is someone who follows polling results and who presumably will be exposed to high-level briefings on science and climate which his entourage has not yet tapped. There is also likely to be a reinvigoration of people and groups determined to ensure that states and cities adapt and prepare for climate change and promote the energy efficiencies, renewables, water conservation, and agricultural transformation that will help people flourish and prosper even as the earth warms and the sea level rises. 

e360: Is the appointment of Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon, as Secretary of State the death-blow for U.S. environmental policy? 

Reilly: I would offer a counter-intuitive measure of respect. It was Tillerson who discontinued his predecessor’s funding of climate deniers. He imposed a high shadow carbon price when assessing the anticipated returns from capital investments. He has publicly supported a carbon tax and has acknowledged the science and characterized climate change as a serious challenge. I know from my experience as co-chair of President Obama’s Commission on the BP Gulf of Mexico disaster that ExxonMobil’s competitors and peers regard the company as the most environmentally effective and safety conscious of all the major [oil companies]. For that reason, I asked him to speak at one of our hearings and to explain how his company had transformed itself after its own disaster in Alaska [the Exxon Valdez oil spill] in 1989 when I was EPA administrator. 

e360: There are fears he will team up with the authoritarian government of Russia to help fossil fuel exploitation in the Arctic. 

Reilly:  His familiarity with Russia is deep, and I suspect he has no illusions. He has stated that Russia has no rule of law. As to whatever major exploration Russia and ExxonMobil may do in the Arctic, my own knowledge of the industry would indicate that most Arctic countries — Canada, Norway, Greenland, the U.S. — are all planning major Arctic exploration and investments. So better Rosneft [the state-owned Russian oil company] has a responsible partner. As to the sanctions, one must hope that he views them through a different lens once he speaks not for his company, but for America. And let’s be serious: Compared with some of the names mentioned for Secretary of State, Tillerson is safe hands. 

e360: Is it an option to just wait for four years until the Trump presidency is over and then move on? 

Reilly: For some time there has been the sense that serious climate disruptions are likely to confront our grandchildren, not us. Current forecasts indicate problems are more imminent. Midwestern plant zone changes have already led Chicago to cease planting Norway spruce, maple, and ash trees in the parks. Termites, tropical diseases, and bark beetles all are flourishing and moving into warming regions. Zika and dengue fever are in Florida and Texas. The problem, the challenge, is upon us. Time is important, and it appears the nation will not lead on the most urgent planetary challenge in modern history, which is profoundly saddening. But Washington is not the only locus of change and policy in America, and competing centers of influence are mobilizing in this very big and dynamic country. None of us who care are giving up.