Myron Ebell, who is leading Donald Trump’s transition team at the Environmental Protection Agency, is the boring face of extremism. As the main in-house climate-change denier for the Competitive Enterprise Institute (a libertarian think tank partially funded by oil and coal companies), he appears often in the media to provide “balance” to mainstream science. While others shout, Ebell drones in an overly precise manner, critiquing “the myth of global warming” and warning of the unacceptable cost of doing anything about it. When confronted by the fact that he has no background in science, Ebell insists he’s merely speaking as “a well-informed layman.”
Ebell has spent most of his career fighting health and environmental regulations, under the guise of protecting private property and the free market. Early on, he was involved in an effort to radically reform the Endangered Species Act in a manner that would have gutted federal conservation efforts. Later, in the 1990s, he promoted the benefits of “safe cigarettes” (the “clean coal” of our lungs) and fought proposed tobacco regulation with funding from Phillip Morris USA.
Ebell, who grew up on a cattle ranch in Oregon, has also been deeply involved in Western land-use disputes. After shilling for Phillip Morris, he worked as a lobbyist for Chuck Cushman, one of the key leaders of the anti-environmental Wise Use movement, which fought to block the Clinton administration’s environmental initiatives. Wise Use was a network of groups that called for opening up all federal lands, including national parks and national forests, to mining, logging, and oil drilling. Cushman, whose followers affectionately called him “Rent-a-Riot,” succeeded in blocking early Clinton-era environmental reforms with angry rallies featuring hanging effigies of government officials and local environmentalists, talk of “genocide against rural America,” and fax and call-in campaigns.
Ebell was a relatively soft-spoken contrast to Cushman’s loud-mouthed, neo-cowboy braggadocio. He told me at the time that Cushman’s field organizing combined with his own lobbying work with sympathetic Western politicians and industry associations were effectively blocking the Clinton administration’s proposals to end environmentally destructive federal subsidies for gold mining, timber logging, and cattle grazing on Western public lands. The movement didn’t succeed in opening up all of the federal lands it desired for industrial activity, but, Ebell told High Country News in 1994, “Clearly we have stopped the momentum of the other side.”
Ebell and Cushman, along with other groups, did succeed in halting reform of the 1872 Mining Act, a 144-year-old law that still allows hard-rock mining claimants on public lands to extract gold, silver, and uranium without paying any royalties (like the oil and gas industries have to). As a result, multinational gold-mining companies have made billions of dollars, royalty-free, while having polluted over 12,000 miles of Western rivers. In supporting the mining industry, Ebell argued that any royalty payment imposed on a company doing open-pit mining on public lands should be construed as a legal “taking” of their private property.
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Ebell and Cushman also argued that grazing permits on public lands over time evolved into private-property rights, one of the arguments the Bundy family and their supporters have made to justify their recent armed confrontations with the federal government in Nevada and Oregon. In fact, 20 years before the Bundys and their armed supporters staged a takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon (for which they were recently acquitted), the Wise Use movement stoked a controversy related to the very same ranching family that the Bundys were supposedly defending, the Hammonds. After Dwight Hammond and his son were arrested in 1994 for interfering with federal workers at Malheur, Cushman staged a rally at which he displayed the phone numbers and addresses of refuge employees, and told a crowd of several hundred that they should be made “pariahs” of the community. Malheur’s former manager, Forrest Cameron, received death threats, as did his wife and five children.
The Wise Use movement became increasingly defined by threats, disinformation, and open violence. In 1994 and ’95, member groups began to express support for and to merge with armed right-wing militias. After militia sympathizers Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols carried out the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 men, women, and children, industry groups quickly began to abandon their support for Wise Use, and the movement began to fade—though its conspiracy-oriented, anti-environmental messaging became mainstreamed in the Republican Party. As for Ebell, he moved on to become policy director for former Wyoming senator Malcolm Wallop’s Frontiers of Freedom Institute, a property-rights group that defined itself as “the antithesis of the Sierra Club and Vice President Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance.”
By 2001, safely ensconced at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Ebell coordinated an effective campaign of calls, faxes, and e-mails that convinced President George W. Bush to renege on his 2000 campaign promise to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants, and to withdraw the United States from the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. That cemented Ebell’s reputation as one of America’s leading climate deniers.
Now, Ebell is in charge of setting priorities and choosing personnel for the EPA, one of the last regulatory lines of defense against carbon pollution. From mining, timber, and tobacco interests, he’s graduated to representing one of the most powerful backlashes and largest industrial combines in human history: the fossil-fuel industry. And this time it really is earth in the balance.