On November 8, 2016, Matt Gaetz (R-FL) was elected to his first term in Congress, representing Florida’s 1st District. This happens to be the district that I have called home for my entire life.
The first piece of legislation he introduced as a federal representative was to completely abolish the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by December 31, 2018.
“Completely abolish” is not an exaggeration or an overstatement — that is what the bill is designed to do. The summary of the legislation simply states: “This bill terminates the Environmental Protection Agency on December 31, 2018.”
While Rep. Gaetz is standing by his bill, that doesn't mean his constituents or colleagues are crazy about it, or that it's realistic.
Why Dismantle the EPA?
Rep. Gaetz claims that his plan to abolish the EPA is about giving states the sole authority to regulate their own environments, even though states are currently free to enact their own environmental safeguards as long as they adhere to the federally set minimums. So, the only possible change would be that states reduce the already meager environmental protections for industries operating within their borders.
Before he was elected to the U.S. Congress, Rep. Gaetz served as a representative in the Florida House of Representatives, where he had a history of opposing environmental safeguards. As DeSmog has reported, he and his three co-sponsors have financial backing from fossil fuel companies and energy utilities.
As a candidate, Gaetz received a little more than $31,000 from the energy and natural resources sector for his first national campaign, according to Open Secrets. Considering that he raised more than $1 million for his campaign, that number is relatively low, but not all of his fossil fuel industry funding was direct. DeSmog previously reported that:
“A super PAC supporting him received a $100,000 donation from Harness Oil and Gas, a Texas-based company reportedly run by family friends. This super PAC, North Florida Neighbors, spent over $460,000, the bulk of its total expenditures during that election cycle, supporting Gaetz.”
That money alone likely isn’t enough to make Gaetz want to dismantle the EPA in its entirety.
But a look at his other major donors — brewers, real estate developers, and agriculture — reveal that the fossil fuel industry may be just one of several sectors supporting the freshman representative that would benefit from a weakening of environmental safeguards. Real estate developers happen to be his single largest donor industry, and if Rep. Gaetz were successful in taking down the EPA, that could potentially pave the way for opening an array of new areas for development and exploitation.
It is also possible that Gaetz, a freshman congressman, is attempting to establish his conservative credentials among his more well-established colleagues. This could also explain why the co-sponsors of his legislation are all either first- or second-term members of Congress — a group of young representatives hoping to prove their hard-right bonafides to the rest of the House.
The Reality of Removing EPA Protections
Whatever Gaetz’s motivations, legal experts have offered a reality check on his belief that states are capable of properly executing and enforcing environmental protections.
To begin with, states are financially ill-equipped to tackle effectively environmental protection and to enforce regulations, particularly those regarding pollution that crosses state lines.
The majority of states in the U.S. are currently running budgets that are just solvent, meaning that income in the state is just enough, or one to two percent greater than, total state expenditures. Any additional budgetary requirements — like becoming responsible for environmental regulations currently handled by EPA — has the potential to send more than 30 states into a budgetary crisis in which environmental protections either could not be addressed or other state-run programs would be forced to cut budgets in order to accommodate the new programs.
When you add in the fact that the majority of states in this country either have a climate change opponent as governor or attorney general, it appears increasingly unlikely that many states would enact protections approaching what we currently have from the federal EPA.
The other major problem facing Gaetz’s plan is that environmental laws require uniformity in order to be effective. As the EPA is currently in charge of regulating the amount of pollutants that are allowed to enter the air from factories and other activities, and since the agency regulates the types and amounts of chemicals and heavy metals that can be released into bodies of water, the risk immediately appears that a polluting corporation could move operations to a state with more lenient environmental standards, potentially upsetting countless local economies and environments in the process.
Furthermore, the entire plan would present a nightmare of liability for corporations. The current national environmental protections in place insure that corporations play by the same minimum rules no matter where they go.
What would happen under Gaetz’s plan if a company situated on the north of the Mississippi River with lax environmental safeguards began dumping into the river? Those pollutants would travel across state lines, affecting countless communities, habitats, and wildlife along the way.
Under a patchwork of environmental regulations, corporations could be held liable for polluting a state with stricter standards if those corporate pollutants travel across state lines. The same goes for air pollution that is blown across state lines. Interstate commerce laws would then have to be rewritten to include the new patchwork environmental regulations, creating a legal and logistical nightmare for state governments, corporations, and attorneys.
If the goal of this legislation is to help corporations, then Gaetz may actually do more harm than good.
Without federal regulations, states would be free to file individual lawsuits against corporations for polluting (rather than all joining one suit as a class), forcing corporations to litigate several different cases in different states with different standards. The result would be more legal fees for these corporations, in addition to whatever settlements and fines are handed down against them. In short, corporations could end up paying more money in environmental lawsuits, mostly through the separate defenses needed, than under the current situation.
A final point to consider about Gaetz’s plan is the disastrous economic effects that removing the EPA could have on the United States. In spite of the popular Republican talking point, environmental protections actually create jobs and spur innovation. Those jobs are due to the increased enforcement and compliance needs for both the federal government and corporations affected by the regulations. If national standards disappear, those jobs would immediately be lost. If states do not enact standards as strict as those from the EPA, the majority of those jobs may not return.
In addition, businesses would experience loss due to more sick days among workers and an overall decline in public health as a result of fewer or more lax safeguards.
Gaetz Vows to Continue Fight Against EPA
Gaetz's bill has little chance of becoming law, due in part to its lack of support in Congress and in part to its unpopularity among constituents, who turned out in crowds to voice their disapproval at recent town hall events.
The representative seemed unfazed in his dedication to ousting the EPA, responding at one point to the angry shouts of those protesting his law, “I’m not ashamed of myself.”
As captured on video by E&E News’ Hannah Hess at one of the town halls, Gaetz vowed, “As long as I am your member of Congress, I will fight for the environment and against the EPA.”
Image: Screenshot of email from Rep. Gaetz’s office received on February 9, 2017.