At EPA: Trump’s nominee and 15,000 or so counterweights

By Zack Colman, Christian Science Monitor.

An administrator such as Scott Pruitt can steer in new directions, but that clout is offset by legions of staffers carrying on routines, enforcing rules, and, increasingly, caring about climate change.

DECEMBER 9, 2016  WASHINGTONScott Pruitt, the nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, is just one man who, if confirmed by the Senate, will be steering a very, very large ship – one with more than 15,000 employees spread throughout the country.

That fact points to a reality facing the EPA and other federal agencies: The person at the top can do some steering, but the ship tends to have some persistent momentum of its own.

Donald Trump may have been elected partly on the resonance of his throw-the-bureaucrats-out attitude. And his pick for EPA, Mr. Pruitt, is known as an Oklahoma fossil-fuel advocate and an attorney general who has fought environmental regulations. By all signs, agency budget cuts and a regulatory rollback are coming.

But if history is any guide, another mind-set also matters – that of the career staffers who have seen seen political appointees come and go with regularity. They tend to stick to their knitting, enforce existing laws, and carry on with routines that predate any one administration.

And on perhaps the most crucial environmental issue the nation faces, another force of thought may be at work: Despite the doubts about climate change that have been voiced by Pruitt and Mr. Trump, the scientific consensus about human-caused warming of the planet has been seeping into the fabric of official Washington and of American public opinion.   

On climate, current EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy says there’s no going back to the George W. Bush years, thanks to the flurry of activity coming out of the Obama administration. She says that has helped raise awareness about climate change and emboldened federal scientists.

“This agency when this president came in really came out of the closet on climate,” McCarthy said in an exclusive interview last week. “I have a senior team that’s great and the senior career staff that are here are just extraordinary. They are here because of this mission, and that will continue.”

Some climate advocates worry that such avowals are wishful thinking, given the determination being voiced in some Trump-team quarters for rolling back Obama policies aimed at curbing emissions that trap heat in the atmosphere.