You Can't Always Get What You Want

by Matt Shudtz

January 31, 2017

As long as Donald Trump is in the White House, progressives should harbor no delusions that the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is going to be a wool-socks-in-Birkenstocks tree hugger. Scott Pruitt is certainly no such individual. But nor is he a person with the experience, depth of understanding of the agency’s programs, or temperament to run the agency.

The job of EPA Administrator under President Trump will surely prove to be the most thankless cabinet-level job. Trump has consistently slammed the agency as being a hindrance to business development and promised to curtail its power. Meanwhile, the leader of Trump’s EPA transition team has been envisioning a future in which the agency operates with resources and staffing levels that have not been seen since the Nixon administration.

Yet over on Capitol Hill, you would be hard pressed to find anyone willing to take up the task of repealing the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Toxic Substances Control Act, Superfund, or any of the other bedrock environmental laws that keep the agency busy and the voting public healthy. That said, there is a movement afoot to make EPA’s job harder by increasing the time and effort it takes to meet the requirements of those laws.

What EPA needs in this context is a pragmatic administrator. The agency has statutory obligations that environmental and public health advocates will not let it avoid. For example, under President Trump, the Obama-era Clean Power Plan has a limited shelf life. But after years of successful litigation by environmentalists, EPA is not going to be able to escape its obligation to do something about carbon pollution, nor will it be able to avoid its duty to enforce the rules that are already on the books.

Business groups, too, need a functioning EPA. Enforcement helps level the playing field for businesses that invest the resources to comply with the law. And certain laws, like the new Toxic Substances Control Act, create opportunities for federal regulation to shield companies from a patchwork of different state or local rules. The EPA Administrator must find a way to balance these competing interests.

But Scott Pruitt, in his actions and in his approach to the confirmation process, has shown himself to suffer from a vision that is too narrow and too extreme. For instance, on the changing climate and on toxic chemical exposures, he seems very interested in the notion that there is contrarian scientific opinion he may want to explore before signing off on any regulatory action. And in the meantime, he is quick to identify theories about the scope of the laws on the books that would only allow EPA limited space for action. As progressives, we can disagree about how to address these challenges, but Pruitt’s head-in-the-sand approach to recognizing they exist is not befitting a cabinet-level official.

With all of the work that CPR has done on the Chesapeake Bay TMDL, I’d be remiss to leave that little nugget untouched. As Attorney General of Oklahoma, Pruitt supported a lawsuit by the American Farm Bureau that was intended to eviscerate that high-stakes, multi-jurisdictional effort to restore the Chesapeake Bay. The central argument Pruitt and his colleagues made was that EPA does not have the authority under the Clean Water Act to adopt and enforce the TMDL. Now that he wants the job of EPA Administrator, he has changed his tune, somewhat. He says that he thinks the Bay TMDL is commendable insofar as states are joining together to address a common challenge and EPA’s role is “informational.”

The problem is, the Bay TMDL is doomed if EPA limits itself to an “informational” role. It is hard to divine what that term means in practice, but it sounds a lot like Pruitt’s EPA would not ensure that all of the states in the watershed are pursuing the policies necessary to meet the Bay TMDL pollution reduction goals. As things stand today, Pennsylvania is so woefully behind on its cleanup efforts that its failings have essentially wiped out the progress made by Maryland, D.C., and Virginia, where substantial investments in pollution reduction are making a measurable difference. We are nearing the halfway point in the Bay TMDL timeline, and we need the feds to push Pennsylvania to start pulling its share of the load. Pruitt does not seem willing to do anything to make that happen.

Pruitt’s actions related to the Chesapeake Bay, and his actions on all of the other individual issues that have come under scrutiny during the confirmation process, reveal him to be an anti-regulatory ideologue. That is not surprising from a Donald Trump nominee. But it is also not something the Senate should concede.

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Matthew Shudtz, J.D., is the Executive Director of the Center for Progressive Reform. He joined CPR in 2006 as policy analyst, after graduating law school with a certificate in environmental law.

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