"I know Teddy Kennedy had fun at the Democratic convention when he said that I said that trees and vegetation caused 80% of the air pollution in this country. ... Well now, he was a little wrong about what I said. I didn't say 80%. I said 92%—93%, pardon me. And I didn’t say air pollution, I said oxides of nitrogen. Growing and decaying vegetation in this land are responsible for 93% of the oxides of nitrogen. ... If we are totally successful and can eliminate all the manmade oxides of nitrogen, we’ll still have 93% as much as we have in the air today." —Ronald Reagan, Oct. 9, 1980. (The 1979 quotation Kennedy was referring to: "The American Petroleum Institute filed suit against the EPA [and] charged that the agency was suppressing a scientific study for fear it might be misinterpreted... The suppressed study reveals that 80 percent of air pollution comes not from chimneys and auto exhaust pipes, but from plants and trees." —RR)
Republicans have long had a receptive ear for industrialist complaints that any attempt to protect the nation's air, water, forests, and purple mountain majesties are a job-killing, profit-choking nuisance. While Ronald Reagan's first budget cut funding for the EPA by 25%, it is useful to remember that the agency was established by a Republican president.
My cartoon above imagines that president phoning from his beachfront San Clemente estate to complain about Interior Secretary James Watt's plan to to lease a billion acres of offshore oil fields to petroleum interests.
Watt's fire sale of federal lands and waters also benefited the coal industry and suburban sprawl. Meanwhile, Anne Gorsuch, later Burford, his first head of the EPA (as discussed here a few weeks ago, now that her son is poised to claim Merrick Garland's seat on the Supreme Court), was happy to ignore pollution of the nation's air and water in the interest of protecting commercial profit margins. When scandal forced her resignation, the Reagan administration tapped the first administrator of the EPA, William Ruckelshaus, to return to the agency's helm.
James Watt's mission to make sure there was no speck of nature left unspoiled when the Lord returned was foiled by his uncanny knack for making inappropriate statements in public. He snarked that there are two kinds of people in this country, "liberals and Americans"; described Native American tribal rights as "socialism"; and banned the Beach Boys from the Washington D.C. Fourth of July celebration because they would "attract the wrong element."
He might have had a point if the Beach Boys had continued making hallucinogenic music in the mold of Smile. As it was, Watt was forced to back down and apologize. Turns out, Reagan liked the Beach Boys.
The last straw was his claim that his sale of more than a billion tons of coal from federal lands in Wyoming was above criticism because on his federal coal commission "I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple. And we have talent."
Aside from providing the template for Donald Trump's Twitter habit, Watt pushed genuinely destructive policies that now find favor in the Very Famous Trump White House. Unlike today, however, Watt faced a Congress willing to push back:
Watt's earlier forays included a declaration that he would open wilderness areas in the West to drillers and miners. Congress put a stop to it: the House voted 350 to 58 to withdraw wilderness lands from mineral development. Fifty-two senators cosponsored similar legislation. Watt also proposed a major dilution of the Endangered Species Act and asked Congress to hold off its review of the law. Congress ignored him and renewed the law without significant weakening amendments.He was replaced by a long-time friend of the President, jack-of-all-trades William Clark.
Clark's crowning achievement in his two years at Interior was keeping himself out of the headlines. The policies instituted under Watt continued, but without the media-eye-catching bluster and bombast.