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Senators Benton and Ericksen to Help Gut the EPA

Michael Riordan guest writes. He lives on Orcas Island and covers energy and environmental issues.

As recently reported, State Senators Don Benton and Doug Ericksen have headed to Washington, DC, to lead a “beachhead team” grabbing the reins at the US Environmental Protection Agency. Talk about sending foxes to guard the hen house!

These are obvious political rewards for leading the state Trump campaign. In May 2016 they organized political rallies for him in Spokane and Lynden. Security costs for the latter totaled over $300,000 in state and local funds, none of which has yet been reimbursed. And a later Everett rally must have cost a similar sum, if not more. All told, state taxpayers likely had to foot bills totaling about $1 million in support of these blatantly partisan rallies — especially if indirect costs are included.

And what did that public money pay for, besides security? It helped Donald Trump gain the Republican nomination by winning the primary in our state, which subsequently rejected him overwhelmingly in the general election. Clinton drubbed him here by more than half a million votes — a landslide margin of 52 to 36 percent.

Surely Benton and Ericksen realized that their candidate had little to no chance of ever winning this deep-blue state. But they must also have recognized it would help further their political fortunes should he win the US Presidency, and their stars are indeed now rising in the Trump firmament. Thus Washington state taxpayers have unwittingly helped these clever right-wing politicians get where they have been longing to go.

Last year Benton had lost a lucrative $150,000/year job as the controversial head of the Clark County Department of Environmental Services, for which he was patently unqualified. That position was abolished in a government reorganization, forcing him to get by on his senate salary of less than a third as much. At the end of the year, he resigned as the senator from Washingon’s 17th district near Vancouver. He will apparently serve as at least the temporary White House liaison to the EPA. It’s not yet clear whether he will remain in this “shadow cabinet” position long term.

As Chairman of the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee, Ericksen logged one of the worst environmental records in the state, according to Washington Conservation Voters. He has managed to block or stall legislation on renewable energy and dealing with climate change. But what else can one expect from a state legislator who has enjoyed lavish campaign contributions and free meals from the oil-industry and its lobbyists?

Last November, Ericksen also authored an infamous senate bill labelling environmental activists as “economic terrorists,” guilty of felonies and subject to criminal penalties, including jail time for trespassing. This is called butchering the English language. Sitting peacefully on railroad tracks is an act of terror? By his warped lexicon, civil-rights activist Rosa Parks would have been a “transportation terrorist” for refusing to surrender her bus seat in 1955.

And according to recent articles and reliable sources, Ericksen hopes to stay on the EPA payroll after the transition winds down. He has reportedly been angling for the position of EPA Region 10 Administrator, just vacated by Dennis McLerran at the end of the Obama administration, in charge of Pacific Northwest operations. That’s a position with major environmental responsibility — and a six-figure salary — in charge of more than 500 employees and a budget exceeding $300 million.

Headquartered in Seattle, the Region 10 office oversees EPA’s activities in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington — including support for such projects and groups as the Puget Sound Partnership and Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. It is the lead office in EPA’s environmental assessment of the controversial Bristol Bay, Alaska, open-pit mining project. And the office works closely with Environment Canada on joint efforts aimed at restoring the ecological health of the Salish Sea.

Benton and Ericksen’s “beachhead” assignments are clearly part of Trump plans to gut the agency, led by his choice for EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, now under review by the US Senate. As Oklahoma Attorney General, Pruitt repeatedly sued the agency over its measures, most notably Obama’s Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions from utility power plants. He is no friend of the environment — and a resolute ally of fossil-fuel industries.

On his first working day in the Other Washington, Ericksen got caught in the political crossfire that erupted after Trump transition-team members attempted to muzzle EPA scientists and staff — and to drop climate-change information from its web site. “We’re watching the dark cloud of Mordor extend over federal service,” opined Jeff Ruch, director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. Former EPA Administrator William K. Reilly said the agency seems to be “going down a very dark road” with regard to communicating its science.

“We’re just trying to get a handle on everything and make sure what goes out reflects the priorities of the new administration,” Ericksen backpedaled in his new role as communications director for the EPA beachhead team. Then news broke that a freeze had been ordered on all EPA grants and contracts, leading to another round of muddled apologies and excuses. It must have been a scorching baptism of fire!

Meanwhile, back in Olympia, Ericksen was missing in action. He canceled a mid-week hearing of his committee. And he was nowhere to be seen at a hearing of the Senate Natural Resources and Parks Committee on another bill he had authored, SB 5171, meant to shackle the Department of Natural Resources and Commissioner of Public Lands in granting leases to state lands. If enacted, that bill would overrule outgoing Commissioner Peter Goldmark’s recent decision to restore 45 acres of public tidelands to the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve.

It’s indeed a sad commentary that two Washington state-Republicans with terrible environmental records stand in the forefront of the Trump administration’s attack on this venerable agency, which was established in 1970 under the visionary leadership of William Ruckelshaus, now a San Juan County resident. Since its origins under President Nixon, many Pacific Northwest politicians, from both sides of the aisle, have heartily endorsed its environmental activities. This stauch bipartisan support has been crucial in EPA’s successful efforts to clean up the nation’s air, lands and waters, which were in a woeful state when the agency was launched. Are we headed back to those bygone days?

Defenders of the Pacific Northwest environment must resolutely oppose these looming appointments with every possible means at their disposal.

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About Michael Riordan

Writer • Eastsound, WA • Member since Nov 25, 2016

Michael Riordan writes about science, technology and public policy from Orcas Island, where he lives and kayaks. He holds a PhD degree in physics from MIT, having worked on the [...]

Comments by Readers

Carol Follett

Jan 29, 2017

Thank you for a great article, Mr. Riordan, and for noting that the EPA originated with a Republican, Nixon. Protecting the environment is not a party issue; the heat falls on the Republican and the Democrat alike. Although the EPA is involved in many vital concerns, the extraction and transport of oil is currently one of the most important interconnected issues facing us today.

I fail to understand how anyone in a position of power and influence, like Senator Ericksen, could promote the certain trauma his grandchildren will be subjected to due to our warming planet. Expanding this dependency on depleting and overheating energy with ever more dangerous oil extraction and transportation is like throwing gasoline on a fire. Our nation currently subsidizes the fossil fuel industry, but we need to move all of those subsidies to alternative, renewable, non-harmful sources like solar, wind, and wave.

As our crisis deepens in every way, I have come to the conclusion that we need to dig this weed up by the roots. Obviously the slow way through the political process is not working. Sadly, as you have pointed out in your article, greed feeds this evil. It is money, and has always been money, that moves the machinery of our society, and it is through money we will change its direction.

I propose we begin by a united fossil fuel free day twice a week. We will feel a pinch depriving ourselves of fossil fuel twice a week (unless you have had the good sense and fortune to adopt solar power, and an electric car) but it will be a big bite to the profiteers. I believe such a continuous fossil fuel diet restriction would motivate them to move their money in the right direction, now, not later, but right now. I propose that if after a set amount of time, perhaps three months, the pipelines and trains continue to expand, we add a day to our diet. It is just an idea. What do you think?

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Michael Riordan

Jan 30, 2017

Thanks for your comment, Carol, with which I agree, especially on fossil-fuel subsidies.

In fact, I wrote a February 2014 New York Times editorial about coal exports, which pointed out that Powder River Basin coal from Montana and Wyoming had a hidden subsidy that made these exports much more profitable than they should otherwise have been:

https://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/13/opinion/dont-sell-cheap-us-coal-to-asia.html

This coal leasing policy, which had been firmly in place since the 1980s, was severely criticized by Massachusetts Senator Edward Markey. It was under review by the Interior Department under Sally Jewell, but who knows what’s going to happen after Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke, an avid supporter of the fossil-fuel industry, steps in to replace her in the Trump administration.

I suspect it will fall upon West Coast states to continue their oppositon to coal and oil exports.

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Ryan Knowlton

Jan 30, 2017

I underastand that the EPA largely protects us in many ways, I mean the flaming rivers of years ago had to be dealt with!  Pipelines, oil and fuel transport, global warming, all valid concerns.  There are area’s however, where I feel the EPA has overstepped its bounds and is likely represented by special interests.

For example, in Europe, there are diesel versions of many of the cars we have here that get amazing economy. Aside from a few, we are mostly denied these vehicles…why? Because they are “dirty” as far as emissions. Well lets have a closer look at what “dirty” is and we find the issue. Emissions standards are based upon emisisons per unit of fuel burned.  Anyone catch that? So you’ve got a great big heavy vehicle with 4-catalytic converters and an air pump pumping air into the exhaust manifolds to yield polution levels of 89 units of bad stuff for every gallon of fuel burned, to just squeeze in under a 90 unit limit.  See it yet? The problem is, the 89 units is expelled in the 10 miles that gallon propelled that vehicle. So in 10 miles 89 units of pollutiuon were produced…...***8.9 polution units per mile***.... but that is ok.  The same gallon of fuel fed through a super efficent small turbocharged diesel engine propelling a lightweight aerodynamic vehicle in excess of 60 miles, yet un-encumbered with smog pumps and other emissions equipment,  produced 120 units of bad stuff, or ***2.0 polution units per mile***, but is not allowed in the USA.

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Sam Crawford

Jan 31, 2017

The EPA’s recent fine of Tesoro for not agreeing with their hazard response plan (no actual environmental harm, just didn’t like the way Tesoro’s plan is written) is an example of EPA overreach. Add to that other examples, such as the release of millions of gallons of pollution into a Colorado river, the scandal where EPA employees faked public testimony to expand their authority, etc etc, and you have a picture of a federal agency out of control.

Doug Ericksen at the EPA is great fit. He’s very experienced with industry permitting and regulation and will create a better path to protecting the environment while ensuring an industrial economy that supports the needs of society.

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Bo Richardson

Feb 02, 2017

A comment about Nixon and the EPA.  Nixon did a few seemingly positive things including starting the EPA.

.As I remember the political  context, Nixon was scrambling not to be impeached and jailed.  Also there was a lot of political pressure from the  peacenik progressive  crowd to do positive things. The peaceniks had  huge numbers and were focussed and disciplined in ways we can  hardly remember today.. They were fighting hard to take over the Democratic Party from the Dixie-Daley Machine.

Furthermore Nixon did not create the EPA to pressure polluters. Nixon created the EPA as a symbolic gesture to defuse the  environmental movement  and create a non-respnsive agency which would do as little as possible. In those days there was uncertainty about whether the environmental movement would remain a political force or wither away.

People too young to remember Nixon’s actions in context sometimes want to make Nixon out to be our last liberal President. If Nixon did anything seemingly decent it was because he was caught in a trap of his own making and doing something that seemed decent was a last resort before chewing off his own foot.

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