When the Trump administration announced the appointment of Anne Idsal as the new regional EPA administrator, Adrian Shelley, the director of Public Citizen Texas, had just one thought: Who? “That name meant nothing to me,” said Shelley, who has worked on environmental issues in Texas for the past six years.
Idsal is something of an unknown quantity for many, though she comes from a well-connected Texas political family with ties to the Republican guard and has worked at a high level in state government for years. Her mother, Katharine Armstrong, served on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission under George W. Bush; her grandmother, Anne Armstrong, was an ambassador to the United Kingdom during the Ford administration. The Armstrong Ranch, where former vice president Dick Cheney blasted Harry Whittington with a shotgun during a dove hunt in 2006, is hallowed ground for Republican politicians. Idsal, 34, graduated from Baylor Law School in 2010, joined the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) as assistant general counsel that year and later worked as the chief clerk for George P. Bush at the General Land Office.
Idsal is taking the reins of EPA Region 6, which includes Texas, four other states and 66 tribal nations, as the agency undergoes internal turmoil. In a push to “put America first,” EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has begun implementing President Trump’s deregulatory agenda, rolling back Obama-era environmental protections, opening up federal lands for drilling and downgrading consequences for polluters. On climate change, Pruitt has claimed there is a “debate” that’s “far from settled,” echoing Trump, who once tweeted that climate change is a Chinese hoax.
The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 6, 2012
The administration’s zeal for attacking science has left many rank-and-file staff at the EPA disillusioned and demoralized, and they’re leaving the agency in droves. According to an investigation by the New York Times and ProPublica, more than 700 employees — of whom 200 are scientists — have left the agency in the first nine months of Trump’s presidency.
In an interview with the Observer on her second day on the job, Idsal mostly echoed Pruitt’s positions. On climate change, she said that there is “still a lot of ongoing science” and that the “climate has been changing since the dawn of time, well before humans ever inhabited the Earth.”
“I think it’s possible that humans have some type of impact on climate change,” she said. “I just don’t know the extent of that.”
Asked if such positions may further demoralize staff in the office, Idsal said “the morale in Region 6 is strong” and that “if there are any morale issues,” it’ll be handled “in a very positive way quickly.”
“Folks here have a smile on their faces,” she said.
At TCEQ, Idsal said there was a focus on bringing polluting entities into compliance instead of taking “punitive actions for punitive action’s sake,” an approach she hopes to bring to her new job. “I want to find a way to [say] ‘yes’ in every possible situation where we’ve got the legal justification to do so,” she said. “But recognizing that we sometimes have to enforce because that is your only avenue.”
For environmentalists looking to work with Idsal, such statements don’t bode well. A report from the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project found that in the first six months under Trump, the EPA collected 60 percent less in fines compared to the same time period in the three previous administrations. Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, said it was “alarming” that in 2017 Idsal doesn’t believe climate change is human-caused. “She acknowledges not having a technical background, making it even more important that she listen to the scientists and let them do their jobs,” he said.