Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has been notably light on policy specifics. Yet one of his very few clear proposals is to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency. He has called for doing so repeatedly, although he sometimes calls it the “Department of Environmental” or “DEP.” And he’s not the only Republican presidential contender to call for puting EPA on the chopping block. Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich also called for eliminating the agency, and Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio called for drastically limiting its authority.

As Trump gears up to give a big energy policy speech at a conference hosted by the North Dakota Petroleum Council next Thursday, it’s worth examining what his signature environmental policy proposal would mean. And why does someone with so few specific policy goals have it in for EPA in the first place?

It’s hard to know what goes on under Trump’s combover. His campaign did not respond to a request for comment, nor did his new energy policy advisor, Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.).

Taken literally, Trump’s proposal to abolish EPA is a recipe for dirty air and legal chaos. EPA doesn’t just invent its regulations out of thin air. It is the agency charged with implementing laws such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, which have been passed by Congress. It studies pollutants that are harmful to human health, writes rules to curb those pollutants, and monitors compliance. If Congress abolished EPA but did not repeal the laws that require the federal government to limit pollution, the result would be total incoherence. The government would have legal obligations it could not meet.

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As The Guardian explained in a February article:

Scrapping the EPA … would cause an unravelling of basic protections of air and water. …

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Robert Percival, director of the environmental law program at the University of Maryland, said ditching the EPA was a “ridiculous idea.”

“It reflects a lack of understanding over the US legal system, you’d have to fundamentally repeal or change all our environmental laws,” he said. …

“Trump is demagoguing. It plays to the far-right base but it would have enormous consequences for people’s health.”

If Trump actually managed to kill EPA, Percival predicts that a race to the bottom would ensue, with states deregulating pollution and toxic chemicals in order to attract dirty industries. But it could be even more chaotic than that: Liberal states, environmental and public health organizations, and affected communities could sue the federal government, arguing it is failing to meet its legal obligations. That could lead to court orders that the executive branch would not be able to comply with unless Congress reestablished the agency or something like it.

Of course, there is a relatively simple solution to this problem, which would be to repeal the pollution-control laws themselves. That would be principled, if unpopular, small-government conservatism (not that Trump is actually an advocate of small government). But Trump and other Republicans haven’t taken that politically risky stance. Most voters may dislike bureaucracy, but they like clean air and clean water.

It’s also possible that Trump wants to get rid of all pollution controls and, since he has no idea how the federal government works, he thinks that eliminating EPA is all he needs to do. Given his incoherent, nonsensical babbling about policy matters, it’s likely that Trump has a very limited understanding of the connection between the laws that give the government powers and obligations to regulate and the agencies that implement those laws.

A more charitable take would be that Trump has a more modest policy agenda that he is deliberately mischaracterizing in order to appeal to ignorant voters. Trump, in this reading, doesn’t want to let polluters run totally amok. Instead, he thinks the cost of environmental regulations is excessive and EPA should write more lenient rules with lower standards for environmental quality and lower costs of implementation. That’s what some serious, mainstream conservative policy intellectuals think should happen.

But it’s hardly inspiring to say, “As president, I will direct EPA to set more modest regulations.” Hence, “abolish EPA” becomes a shorthand for favoring business interests over environmental protection.

“This is campaigning, where everything is not literally as it appears,” says Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum, a conservative think tank, and the chief policy advisor to John McCain’s 2008 campaign. “It’s the symbolism of rolling back regulation. This is a more symbolic statement about where priorities are.” Holtz-Eakin notes that his organization has calculated the cost of compliance with EPA regulations and found it to be enormous. On the other hand, pro-environment think tanks, such as the World Resources Institute, find that conservatives and business organizations overestimate the cost of regulatory compliance, because they do not account for future technological innovation and they downplay the economic benefits, chiefly those that come through improved public health.

But even if Holtz-Eakin is right and Trump is just speaking in shorthand, it still leaves a mystery as to why conservative voters would find pledges to roll back environmental regulation particularly appealing. Why say you’re abolishing the EPA instead of another federal agency that imposes rules on industry?

It’s hard to say because polls are rarely if ever taken on public approval of federal agencies. But another conservative policy intellectual offers a theory: familiarity. How much does the average voter know about, say, the Securities and Exchange Commission? Not much. But she might know that Dodd-Frank was a financial regulation bill passed by Democrats. Hence Republicans, including Trump, call for repealing or rewriting Dodd-Frank rather than abolishing the SEC in order to reduce regulation of Wall Street. EPA, on the other hand, is comparatively widely understood. It was even where the villain works in Ghostbusters. It also plays a much more central role in environmental regulation than some other cabinet departments do on issues that are largely determined at the state and local level, such as transportation.

“EPA does some things that are high-impact and affect folks broadly, and EPA is the hub of a lot of this decision making,” says this conservative, who asked not to be named because he is speculating on Trump’s campaign strategy. “A lot of people don’t understand the nuances of very technocratic agencies like [the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] or the SEC or consumer protection bureaus. There’s a lot of smaller policies that are very technocratic and not translated into layman’s terms. EPA comes out with a few zingers that are easier to understand, so it’s easier for the media and folks politically to focus on.”

It will be interesting to see on Thursday if Trump moderates his extreme anti-environmental stance as part of a pivot toward the general election. A 2014 poll commissioned by the American Lung Association found that a plurality of Americans have a positive view of EPA and that the agency is far more popular than oil companies or Congress. Another poll released by the association last year found that 73 percent of voters support EPA imposing stricter limits on smog pollution from power plants and other industrial facilities.

If Trump wants to win over swing voters, threatening to abolish EPA is probably not the way to do it.


Correction: This article originally stated that Rick Perry had also proposed to abolish EPA. He did not.