Q&A with Sierra Club's Sandy Bahr: What Trump's Pick for EPA Means for Arizona

Earlier this week, President-elect Donald Trump sent ripples of fear through the environmentalist community when he announced his nomination for the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt.

Pruitt, a climate-change denier and ally of the fossil-fuel industry, has been one of the most outspoken critics of the EPA during the Obama administration — you know you've got a controversial pick for the EPA when the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity supports the nominee.

On principle, Pruitt tends to oppose federal involvement in environmental matters, and, in particular, anything that strengthens the government's ability to monitor problems and enforce rules.

He opposes the Clean Power Plan and the Paris Agreement, and he worked to overturn federal regulation that strengthened the EPA's ability to safeguard critical streams, rivers, and wetlands under the Clean Water Act.

To his supporters, he's a champion of conservative values and states' rights. To critics, he's a pawn of the oil and gas industry. A 2014 New York Times investigation found that he peddled falsehoods about the effect of certain regulations by reprinting, almost verbatim, a letter drafted by oil and gas executives that he later sent to the EPA, the Department of the Interior, and the White House.

To learn more about what Pruitt believes, and what it would mean for the state of Arizona if the U.S. Congress confirms him, we reached out to Sandy Bahr, chapter director of the Arizona Sierra Club.

New Times:
What was your first thought when you heard Scott Pruitt had been nominated to lead the EPA?

Sandy Bahr: Oh no, this is not good.

NT: Pruitt has been a strong critic of the Clean Power Plan, which aims to curb greenhouse-gas emissions from existing coal- and gas-fired power plants. What would it mean for air quality in Arizona if the CPP is dismantled or weakened, and what impact could that have on human health?

Bahr: To some degree, it will depend on what Arizona decides to do, but considering that the state has generally been prompted to action by the Clean Air Act, I think this will likely result in backsliding on the goals of the Clean Power Plan. If that happens, it will mean the U.S. does not continue forward with meeting carbon-dioxide-emissions reductions.

That also means we will continue to see more of other air pollutants. There are both near-term and long-term impacts, including increased respiratory issues, more premature deaths, and other health impacts associated with air pollution.

NT: It has been determined that Trump's proposal to build a wall across our southern border would have huge impacts on wildlife in the area. Can you talk a little about those impacts? Also, does Pruitt have the power to let the federal government bypass an environmental-impact statement or get around certain regulations?

Bahr: Yes, walls are bad for wildlife, as well as people. Erecting barriers cuts off wildlife corridors and makes it difficult, if not impossible, for animals to move back and forth across the border. It means fewer jaguars are likely to make their way back to the U.S. and limits the recovery opportunities for other species such as the Sonoran pronghorn.

Pruitt does not have the authority to merely exempt the walls or other activities from environmental protections, but the Department of Homeland Security Secretary does.

NT: Pruitt is a big proponent of the oil and gas industry — and a big recipient of political donations from them, too — and while there aren't any known oil or natural-gas reserves in Arizona, there are in our neighboring states. If a state like New Mexico embarked on a more ambitious plan to frack, could that that affect us in Arizona? And if so, how?

Bahr: More oil and gas development is bad for all of us, as it means more greenhouse-gas emissions, including methane, which is a powerful greenhouse gas. There is already a methane "cloud" in western New Mexico. We could see even worse — we could see expanded oil and gas development and reversal of the new methane rule, the one to limit methane emissions. This could mean continued and significant methane emissions in the region and across the country, contributing significantly to climate change.

NT: Pruitt also opposes the Obama administration's Waters of the United States rule, which defines what rivers, streams, lakes, and wetlands are protected by the Clean Water Act. If the rule is repealed or weakened, what critical waterways and wetlands in Arizona would be threatened, and what could that impact look like?

Bahr: Most of Arizona's rivers and streams would be threatened either directly or indirectly. If developers can just fill in washes that lead to the San Pedro, this could further rob the river of water. It could mean more sedimentation from developments and more mining pollution in our streams. Arizona statutes have provisions that say they cannot be more stringent than federal law, so there could be a real cascade effect that results in rivers such as San Pedro, Verde, and the Gila being harmed.

NT: While it's obviously alarming to have a climate-change denier in what is arguably the most powerful environmental role in the country, is this nomination being blown out of proportion, as some have suggested, because many of the laws and regulations aren't actually that easy to undo?

Bahr: I don't think it is an overreaction to be alarmed and dismayed by this nomination. People did not vote for this. That being said, he cannot just wave a wand and get rid of environmental protections. He can, however, preside over weak enforcement and cut deals with big polluters. This would force more issues into the courts and generally result in slower and less enforcement.

NT: In your opinion, what is the biggest threat Pruitt poses to our life, climate, health, and economy in Arizona?

Bahr: It is hard to pick one thing, but I think the biggest issue is that he threatens the floor of environmental protections — the minimum standards we expect for air and water. A lot of times, you don't realize how much these safeguards make a difference until they are not enforced or until they are weakened. Even slowing down progress on cleaning up the air means more asthma attacks, more respiratory disease, and more premature deaths. That is the reality of weak or nonexistent enforcement. The polluters are effectively running the place.

NT: It has been suggested that Pruitt, who is a staunch supporter of deregulation, could decide to relax some of the EPA's federal policies or underfund enforcement. Do you see this happening? If so, which programs or rules that pertain to Arizona are at risk?

Bahr: I think the Clean Air Act is likely to be a target, and we will see slowed action on reducing ozone. And as indicated previously, the provisions in the Clean Power Plan [are at risk]. I doubt we will see them reject weak state plans that really do not address the health-based standards that are established under the Clean Air Act.

I think EPA could reduce funding and action on Superfund sites, leaving it to a weaker and extremely underfunded state program. (Click this link to see a full list of Superfund sites in Arizona.)

NT: Finally, if you're a person who cares about the environment, what can you do to fight back?

Bahr: Find out what position your elected officials at every level are taking on environmental protection. Push them to do more. Help elect those who support environmental protection and to un-elect those who do not. Hold officials accountable. Shine a bright light on any action or inaction that is hurting people, including future generations. Challenge unlawful activities that harm our air and water. Oppose legislation and rules that weaken environmental protections and speak up! Do not give up. Do not accept this.