Colorado’s backstory to court’s EPA gutting

There are ways to make your death environmentally friendly. It's not morbid — it's just the circle of life.

The Supreme Court is staging a counterrevolution against social progress, rewriting laws and twisting the Constitution to please a right-wing minority with highly unpopular rulings on choice, guns, church and state, and the environment. 

The Court issued a ruling in West Virginia v. EPA, which undermined the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to meaningfully regulate greenhouse gases. The New York Times reported that the case “is the product of a coordinated, multiyear strategy by Republican attorneys general, conservative legal activists and their funders, several with ties to the oil and coal industries, to use the judicial system to rewrite environmental law, weakening the executive branch’s ability to tackle global warming.”

The ruling has a Colorado back story.

Justice Neil Gorsuch is the son of Anne Gorsuch, who was Ronald Reagan’s highly controversial first EPA administrator.  She slashed the agency’s budget by nearly a quarter and bragged that she had reduced the thickness of the book of clean water regulations from six inches to a half inch. A war broke out within the EPA. She appointed flunkies from the polluting industries the EPA was supposed to be regulating.

She chose Rita Levelle, a PR executive with a military contractor which had potentially massive hazardous waste liabilities. After her appointment, many of the EPA’s top scientists and administrators immediately quit. Levelle would later be convicted on charges of lying to Congress, and spent six months in federal prison.

Environmental reporter Jeffrey St. Clair notes: “Gorsuch’s downfall came after congressional investigators requested records of her warm chats with companies under EPA jurisdiction. At the advice of a White House counsel, Gorsuch refused to turn over the documents and was duly cited with contempt of Congress. When she was called to defend herself, the Reagan justice department declined to accompany her to the Hill. Gorsuch resigned in disgust.” 

Gorsuch was a member of a team from a little noticed state. A Sept. 6, 1981 New York Times article proclaimed “The ‘Colorado Mafia’ Puts Its Stamp on The Government.” Reporter William E. Schmidt wrote that many in Washington, D.C. were “surprised at the number of appointments given to Colorado Republicans.”  

James G. Watt became Interior Secretary, Bob Burford was tapped to become director of the Bureau of Land Management and Anne Gorsuch headed up EPA.

Schmidt said the trio “chosen to oversee the management and protection of natural resources, public lands and environment were ideological soulmates: fiercely conservative proponents of less Federal intervention, more power to state and local governments and a freer hand for private enterprise. Indeed, the three were quickly dubbed ‘’the Colorado mafia’’ and it’s widely believed that the man behind the scenes was none other than Joseph Coors, the conservative brewer from Golden, Colo., who is one of Mr. Reagan’s closest confidants.” 

Schmidt found that there were many Colorado Republicans who “favored by Mr. Coors” dispersed throughout the federal government. However, Coors quashed the appointment of one Colorado Republican, Mary Estill Buchanan, who was going to become the head of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Coors called the White House and she was out.

Buchanan was the state’s secretary of state from 1974 to 1983. She was the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in 1980 but lost to incumbent Gary Hart. 

However, Buchanan won the Senate nomination by mounting a petition drive in defiance of Coors and other top Republicans. She was also pro-choice on abortion and supported the Equal Rights Amendment. 

Gorsuch wasn’t the most well-known of the “Colorado Mafia.” That distinction would go to James Watt who, as interior secretary, oversaw nearly 500 million acres of federal land. He had headed Coors’ Mountain States Legal Foundation, a “public interest” group that had intervened on behalf of energy developers seeking to open public land to private development.

As Interior Secretary, Watt  proposed the sale of 30 million acres of public lands to private companies, said corporations should manage national parks, refused to enforce the national strip mining laws and drastically underpriced the sale of publicly owned coal resources (short-changing taxpayers $28.9 billion according to one study).

 A joke circulated in corporate suites: How much power does it take to stop a million environmentalists? One Watt. 

Yet Watt left office in disgrace. A gigantic climate action movement arose. We still have a democracy, however flawed, and we can vote bastards out of office. But time is short. 


This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.


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