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Is EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt Focused on Getting ‘Back to Basics’ or Slashing and Burning Our Environmental Protections?

Climate Justice

In an article just published in the Environmental Law Institute’s Environmental Law Reporter, former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official Bob Sussman examines the tenure of Administrator Scott Pruitt thus far. I recently talked with Mr. Sussman about Pruitt’s so-called “back to basics” approach at EPA, the rollbacks of environmental protections he has overseen so far, and Pruitt’s numerous favors for special interests. 

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has made a big deal out of his “back to basics” mantra at the agency. What do you think he means by that, and are his actions living up to his words? 

Although Scott Pruitt’s words suggest a renewed focus on the fundamentals of environmental protection – clean air, clean water, and safer chemicals – his actions tell a different story. Instead of doubling down on traditional programs safeguarding air, water, and land, Pruitt’s tenure so far has been defined by an obsessive focus on undoing the legacy of the Obama EPA, downsizing the agency’s workforce and budget, repealing rules, weakening EPA’s science capabilities, and scaling back oversight of state programs. 

Aside from the environmental rollbacks, what is so worrisome about Pruitt’s approach at EPA? 

Although you wouldn’t know it from the rhetoric of Scott Pruitt and President Donald Trump, polling data doesn’t show much public support for scaling back EPA’s mission and eliminating rules on the books. Most Americans value a cleaner environment, believe there are problems we have not fully addressed, and want more action from the government, not less. Although it’s not perfect, our environmental record of accomplishment is impressive and reflects the stability and continuity of environmental policy from one presidential administration to the next. With rare exceptions, EPA administrators have built on the work of their predecessors, retaining regulations on the books and adding new programs in response to changes in scientific understanding and public concerns. 

But Scott Pruitt is trying to turn all that on its head, both by an unprecedented attack on the accomplishments of the last administration and by working to dismantle the machinery of environmental protection and thus our ability to maintain existing protections and respond to new threats. This is a sharp break from the approaches of past administrations, Democratic and Republican, which generally supported and enhanced the body of law and policy on the books. This progress will be reversed if EPA’s dominant focus is revisiting previous decisions, letting industry off the hook on compliance, and delaying well-documented environmental benefits. Inevitably, this will mean dangerous backsliding in the overall level of public health and environmental protection, and we’ll pay a big price as a result. 

Pruitt and Trump have celebrated the rollback of Obama-era environmental protections like the Clean Power Plan and the Clean Water Rule. Have past EPA Administrators been so focused on undoing the work of their predecessors? 

They haven’t. For the most part, continuity has been the watchword during presidential and EPA transitions. This in part reflects a reluctance to rewind the clock on rules that may not be perfect but represent progress toward shared environmental goals. Previous incoming EPA heads have wanted to be forward-looking and focus the agency’s resources on their own agenda, rather than a backward-looking reexamination of rules on the books. They also have recognized that, despite its limitations, the rulemaking process generally produces credible decisions that may not command universal support but rest on a sound legal and technical foundation and result from a robust exchange of views and information. And they may have felt that it is better to rely on judicial review to correct legal and technical errors in previous rules than to devote time and resources to repealing or revising them – a multi-year process that may easily span all or a substantial part of a president’s term in office. Reflecting these considerations, while most incoming administrations have conducted a review of their predecessors’ actions at EPA and other agencies, these efforts have largely been narrow and targeted and therefore far less sweeping and disruptive than what we’re seeing at the Trump/Pruitt EPA. 

What’s behind Pruitt’s environmental rollbacks, which he often characterizes as “reconsiderations”? 

Pruitt’s choice of rules to reconsider appears to be a knee-jerk response to long-standing right-wing grievances against EPA and the special pleading of industry lobbyists rather than the result of careful analysis. He and his staff have provided little or no public explanation of the deficiencies in these rules that warrant reconsideration, the nature of possible revisions, or the timetable and process for new rulemaking. If there’s a guiding philosophy, it seems to be that the Obama EPA grossly overreached, cooked the books in its scientific and economic assessments, and abused its authority, all to the detriment of job creation and economic growth. These are longtime articles of faith among vocal EPA detractors, but they’re not mainstream views and don’t fairly represent the Obama administration’s record.  

Will it be easy for Pruitt to carry out the wishes of these special interests?

I think Scott Pruitt is grossly overpromising what he can in fact deliver. Maybe Pruitt believes that the hurdles of rulemaking are easily finessed and that his team can improvise legal and policy justifications when the time comes. However, this is unrealistic. Withdrawing or revising the rules Pruitt has targeted will take years, as resources and expertise are consumed by revisiting legal and technical issues that have already been vetted fully through previous rulemakings. Indeed, the agency has already significantly stumbled in its efforts to block implementation of the oil and gas methane emissions rule, with Pruitt’s proposed delay in compliance being rebuffed by a federal appeals court. This illustrates the vast challenges Pruitt faces as he seeks to roll back scores of Obama rules. I think the reconsideration process, with its many legal and policy hurdles, will morph into the main priority of Pruitt’s tenure and will probably remain unfinished by the end of Trump’s first term, even without considering legal challenges that drag on for several more years.

Coverage of EPA and Pruitt’s tenure has largely focused on environmental rollbacks. Are there other things going on inside the agency that could do further damage?

Unfortunately, yes. Pruitt is presiding over an unprecedented weakening of our nation’s environmental protection capability. EPA’s workforce, already at historically low levels, is being downsized further, and its budget is on track to be cut significantly. The elimination of research funding and turmoil on the agency’s scientific advisory committees are eroding its technical and scientific competency. Enforcement activity has dropped well below the levels of previous administrations, lowering the threat of civil and criminal penalties that deter violations. And budget uncertainties, attrition of key staff, and conflicting signals from leadership have reduced EPA’s ability to provide financial support, policy guidance, and expertise to state programs. These trends will take a large toll on EPA’s effectiveness that will be difficult to reverse.

For more on Scott Pruitt’s assault on our public health and environmental safeguards, check out Sussman’s Environmental Law Reporter article.

Top photo by the Natural Resources Defense Council, used under a Creative Commons license.

Climate Justice

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