MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This week, without explanation, the Environmental Protection Agency canceled the speaking appearances of three EPA scientists who were scheduled to talk at a conference about climate change. In another development, the agency is backing away from a congressionally mandated review of asbestos and other toxins. These are the latest developments in EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's drive to shift his agency's focus, which critics say amounts to gutting the mission of environmental protection. Lisa Friedman covers energy and environment policy for The New York Times. Thanks for coming in.
LISA FRIEDMAN: Thank you for having me.
BLOCK: And let's start with the cancellation this past week of the EPA scientists' speeches on climate change. One of them was to have been the keynote address. Is this emblematic of a policy shift on climate change within the EPA?
FRIEDMAN: It's certainly emblematic of a rhetorical shift. Over the past several months, we've seen the EPA overhaul their website and replace climate pages without the word climate change. The EPA recently came out with a strategic plan for the next four years - doesn't mention the word climate change at all. So the phrase and thinking about how to approach climate change is verboten at EPA.
BLOCK: President Trump has also abandoned President Obama's clean power plan that was intended to regulate coal-fired power plants.
FRIEDMAN: That's right.
BLOCK: Has the administration proposed anything new that would replace it?
FRIEDMAN: No, though they say that's coming. You know, I think it's important to be clear that the clean power plan has not yet ended. There's a whole process for rolling it back. And that process really just started. The administration has said that they are going to solicit information about what a proposed new rule could look like. And, interestingly, industry has said that they want to see a replacement. Obviously, what they have in mind is a much more narrow and modest way of reining in emissions. But they have told the EPA they would like to see something.
BLOCK: There are a number of top EPA officials now who came to the agency directly from working with the oil or chemical industries. How is their influence being felt? Because critics say this shows that the EPA is now in the pocket of industry.
FRIEDMAN: I think that's still playing out. We're seeing changes in a number of areas. And, you know, to some extent, it's not necessarily that industry is changing policy but that the administration is putting in place people that share their worldview and their policy perspectives. For example, Andrew Wheeler has recently been nominated to have the second-in-command slot at EPA, deputy administrator. He formerly worked for Senator James Inhofe and has been lobbying for coal companies.
BLOCK: When Scott Pruitt was attorney general in Oklahoma, he sued the EPA 14 times. He's now heading the agency that he spent many years fighting in court. What is emerging as EPA's function now that he's in charge?
FRIEDMAN: Scott Pruitt built his career battling the EPA. He, since he's been in office, has said that he wants EPA to have a back-to-basics approach to focus on Superfund sites, to focus on clean air and clean water. There's a lot of questions about whether he is doing even those things. He has said that he is cracking down on polluters. Outside groups have found that the level of civil enforcement is down dramatically. He has said that he is focusing heavily on Superfund sites.
There have been a number of reports questioning how well that's playing out, especially in places that have suffered terrible hurricanes, like in Houston. Meanwhile, a lot of scientists and others within EPA remain concerned. They are worried that they are going to be hampered from doing their jobs. They're worried that they are not going to be able to speak publicly about their science. And that's especially heightened when it comes to issues like climate change.
BLOCK: Lisa Friedman covers the environment and energy policy for The New York Times. Thanks very much.
FRIEDMAN: Thank you so much.
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