On February 17, 2017, former Oklahoma state attorney Scott Pruitt was sworn into office as the fourteenth Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The date of his confirmation is important to note. Just one day before, Scott Pruitt became the recipient of a court order mandating he release a collection of 7,500 emails (which may be found here), save ones that fall under exemption due to Oklahoma’s state records law. The Center for Media and Democracy, a watchdog for relations between corporations and politicians, was the first organization to request Pruitt’s emails be made public. Of the ones released, it has been discovered the Administrator of the EPA once had very close relationships with one of Oklahoma’s largest oil and gas companies, Devon Energy. So close, in fact, that Pruitt has issued statements against the EPA’s regulatory prescriptions on carbon emissions using opinions drafted by a team of lobbyists employed by Devon. During his time as Oklahama’s State Attorney General, Scott Pruitt sued the EPA 14 different times over pollution regulations.
As mentioned, the court order was issued the day before Scott Pruitt was sworn into office, thus giving republicans in congress all the more credibility when it came to confirming Pruitt as the head of the EPA. Arguably there is room for justification over the swiftness of their actions. Yet, POLITICO quotes democratic senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island in calling Pruitt’s confirmation “an epic ram job,” stating Pruitt himself is “the tool and minion of the fossil industry.” Other Democrats like Jeff Merkley of Oregon pressured congress to delay the vote another 10 days, giving politicians enough time to digest the evidence that have, since then, been made readily available. Without the delay—and, consequently, evidence of Pruitt’s involvement with oil and gas companies—Pruitt succeeded in getting confirmed 52-46.
While the irony of Republicans neglecting to take Pruitt’s private email correspondence seriously was foregrounded in the week of his confirmation, he has since then made clear what he intends the nature of the EPA to be during his time as the agency’s Administrator. The day President Trump gave his first speech to a joint session of Congress, he issued an executive order directing the EPA to repeal the previous administration's Clean Water Rule.
The Clean Water Rule effectively and legally makes clear which waterways and tributaries are protected by the federal government against, say, oil spills, toxic dumping, or even emissions from nearby coal depositories. The rule also has the effect of reducing case-specific analyses of particular waterways, reducing costs for the EPA significantly. In years prior, supreme court justices would argue over what “wetlands” and “waterways” referred to; whether they “connote continuously present, fixed bodies of water,” as Justice Scalia is lead to believe, or “relatively permanent, standing or flowing bodies of water,” including “seasonal rivers,” as permitted by Justice Kennedy. Under Obama, the EPA sifted through over 1,200 scientific reports and opinions to determine, once and for all, just such interpretations.
The controversy enters when, in the meantime, the Clean Water Rule has no substitute. While it’s being repealed, Pruitt’s EPA will have to devise an alternative that goes through a similar process of diligence before a new, updated legislation on the protection of waterways may be proposed. Until then, Trump has asked Pruitt to uphold Justice Scalia’s opinion regarding the “continuously present, fixed bodies of water,” for reference on any further cases. There is considerable danger in adopting this rhetoric, as it lessens the bodies of water under protection compared with Justice Kennedy’s concurrence. This, coupled with Trump’s recent move to allow coal companies to dump waste in streams, seriously threatens the historical role the EPA has played in major environmental reform.
Nearly 800 former EPA employees have signed a letter opposing Pruitt’s confirmation. They cite the evidence from Pruitt’s emails as coercion between the state of Oklahoma and oil and gas companies to downplay the effects of carbon pollution on the environment. Republican lawmakers have proposed a bill to terminate the EPA altogether, arguing it has overstepped its federal authority and remains too costly. While a complete termination of the agency is unlikely, the President himself has submitted a budget which decreases state grants as lows as 30 percent for programs targeting lead poisoning in rivers, and as high as 70 percent for programs cutting methane emissions. In total, Trump’s proposal could reduce the federal budget allocated to the EPA by 25 percent, requiring approximately 20 percent of the staff to be laid off. All the while, Scott Pruitt: the man being sued for plagiarizing opinions drafted by oil and gas lobbyists as an Oklahoma state attorney oversees the most important federal body for environmental protection the US has.
With that, I would like to leave you with a few words written by Scott Pruitt himself in an article published by the National Review. In his efforts to spark fear in the encroaching powers of the State, he ironically confesses to the severity of his appointment. Even more troubling than the powers of the State, he writes, “are internal e-mails and other documents that indicate that [a certain] coercion was orchestrated not by the attorneys general themselves, but by green-energy advocacy groups using these officials as puppets to further their extreme agendas.” Replace “green-energy advocacy groups” with “oil and gas lobbyists,” and in his words: “This should frighten us all.”
For more information on the implications of Scott Pruitt’s confirmation to lead the EPA, see Vox’s article here.
To find out more about the organizations that Pruitt has been accused of utilizing to fake state opinions, or plagiarize legislation from, see John Oliver’s clip on ALEC here. It will provide you with a sense of what Pruitt’s practices probably looked like.
If you feel passionate about environmental protection and want to get involved with securing an eco-friendly future for the EPA, the Natural Resources Defense Council is suing Trump for illegally rescinding a rule regarding the use of mercury in dental offices. The people behind 350.org stage sit-ins at hearings of threatening legislation being passed, and could always use donations. And, the Environmental Defense Fund consistently holds Scott Pruitt accountable for his actions by publishing his ties to oil and gas donors, as well as the numerous lawsuits he’s filed against the EPA.