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Donald Trump wants to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency – can he?

"Epa, Epa, Eeeepaaaaa" – Grampa Simpson.

 

There have been countless jokes about Donald Trump’s aversion to academic work, with many comparing the US president to an infant. The Daily Show created a browser extension aptly named “Make Trump Tweets Eight Again” that converts the font of Potus’s tweets to crayon scrawlings. Indeed, it is absurd that – even without the childish font – one particular bill that was introduced within the first month of Trump taking office looked just as puerile. Proposed by Matt Gaetz, a Republican who had been in Congress for barely a month, “HR 861” was only one sentence long:

“The Environmental Protection Agency shall terminate on December 31, 2018”.

If this seems like a stunt, that is because Gaetz is unlikely actually to achieve his stated aim. Drafting such a short bill without any co-sponsors – and leaving it to a novice congressman to present – is hardly the best strategy to ensure a bill will pass. 

Still, Republicans' distrust for environmental protections is well known – the long-running cartoon show The Simpsons even did a send up of the EPA where the agency had its own private army. So what else makes HR 861 implausible?

Well, the ten-word-long statement neglects to address the fact that many federal environmental laws assume the existence of or defer to the EPA. In the event that the EPA was abolished, all of these laws – from the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 to the Frank R Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act of 2016 – would need to be amended. Preferably, a way of doing this would be included in the bill itself.

Additionally, for the bill to be accepted in the Senate there would have to be eight Democratic senators who agreed with its premise. This is an awkward demand, when not even all Republicans back Trump. The man Trump appointed to the helm of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, is particularly divisive because of his long opposition to the agency. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said that she was hostile to the appointment of a man who was “so manifestly opposed to the mission of the agency” that he had sued the EPA 14 times. Polls from 2016 and 2017 suggest that most Americans would also be opposed to the agency’s termination.

But if Trump is incapable of entirely eliminating the EPA, he has other ways of rendering it futile. In January, Potus banned the EPA and National Park Services from “providing updates on social media or to reporters”, leading to a slew of angry alternative environmental agency Twitter accounts. Some, like “Angry National Park”, are still acting as political aggregates – fighting the new administration’s agenda by disseminating information on both national and grassroots movements in short, snappy bursts. This Friday Trump plans to “switch off” the government’s largest citizen-linked data site – the EPA’s Open Data Web Service. This is vital not just for storing and displaying information on climate change, but also as an accessible way of civilians viewing details of local environmental changes, such as chemical spills. Given the administration’s recent announcement of his intention to repeal existing safeguards, such as those to stabilise the climate and protect the environment, defunding this public data tool is possibly an attempt to decrease awareness of Trump’s forthcoming actions.

There was also a recent update to the web page of the EPAs Office of Science and Technology, in which all references to “science-based” work were removed in favour of an emphasis on “national economically and technologically achievable standards”. 

Trump’s reshuffle of the EPA's priorities puts the onus on economic activity at the expense of public health and environmental safety. Pruitt, who is also eager to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, spoke in an interview of his desire to “exit” the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. He came to this conclusion because of his belief that the agreement means “contracting our economy to serve and really satisfy Europe, and China, and India”.

 

Rather than outright closure of the EPA, its influence and funding are being leached away. HR 861 might be a subtle version of one of Potus’s Twitter taunts – empty and outrageous – but it is by no means the only way to drastically alter the EPA’s landscape. With Pruitt as EPA administrator, the organisation may become a caricature of itself – as in The Simpsons Movie. Let us hope that the #resistance movements started by “Rogue” EPA and “Alt” National Parks social media accounts are able to stave off the vultures until there is “Hope” once more.

 

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

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Nicola Sturgeon is betting on Brexit becoming real before autumn 2018

Second independence referendum plans have been delayed but not ruled out.

Three months after announcing plans for a second independence referendum, and 19 days after losing a third of her Scottish National Party MPs, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon booted the prospect of a second independence referendum into the heather. 

In a statement at Holyrood, Sturgeon said she felt her responsibility as First Minister “is to build as much unity and consensus as possible” and that she had consulted “a broad spectrum of voices” on independence.

She said she had noted a “commonality” among the views of the majority, who were neither strongly pro or anti-independence, but “worry about the uncertainty of Brexit and worry about the clarity of what it means”. Some “just want a break from making political decisions”.

This, she said had led her to the conclusion that there should be a referendum reset. Nevertheless: "It remains my view and the position of this government that at the end of this Brexit process the Scottish people should have a choice about the future of our country." 

This "choice", she suggested, was likely to be in autumn 2018 – the same time floated by SNP insiders before the initial announcement was made. 

The Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie responded: “The First Minister wishes to call a referendum at a time of her choosing. So absolutely nothing has changed." In fact, there is significance in the fact Sturgeon will no longer be pursuing the legislative process needed for a second referendum. Unlike Theresa May, say, she has not committed herself to a seemingly irreversable process.

Sturgeon’s demand for a second independence referendum was said to be partly the result of pressure from the more indy-happy wing of the party, including former First Minister Alex Salmond. The First Minister herself, whose constituency is in the former Labour stronghold of Glasgow, has been more cautious, and is keenly aware that the party can lose if it appears to be taking the electorate for granted. 

In her speech, she pledged to “put our shoulder to the wheel” in Brexit talks, and improve education and the NHS. Yet she could have ruled out a referendum altogether, and she did not. 

Sturgeon has framed this as a “choice” that is reasonable, given the uncertainties of Brexit. Yet as many of Scotland’s new Labour MPs can testify, opposition to independence on the doorstep is just as likely to come from a desire to concentrate on public services and strengthening a local community as it is attachment to a more abstract union. The SNP has now been in power for 10 years, and the fact it suffered losses in the 2017 general election reflects the perception that it is the party not only for independence, but also the party of government.

For all her talk of remaining in the single market, Sturgeon will be aware that it will be the bread-and-butter consequences of Brexit, like rising prices, and money redirected towards Northern Ireland, that will resonate on the doorstep. She will also be aware that roughly a third of SNP voters opted for Brexit

The general election result suggests discontent over local or devolved issues is currently overriding constitutional matters, whether UK-wide or across the EU. Now Brexit talks with a Tory-DUP government have started, this may change. But if it does not, Sturgeon will be heading for a collision with voter choice in the autumn of 2018. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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