Environment

Don't Be Diverted by Scott Pruitt's Ethics Scandals: The Real Harm He's Causing Is to the Environment and Public Health

Pruitt endures at EPA because his ruthless deregulation agenda genuflects to the fossil fuel industry and permits big polluters to run amok.

Rally to stop the appointment of Scott Pruitt for the EPA in Washington, D.C. (February 15, 2017)
Photo Credit: Victoria Pickering/Flickr

Scott Pruitt’s ethical woes at EPA, while alarming, should not divert Americans attention from the profound harm he is causing. Moral charges against Trump’s EPA chief obscure real crimes against the American people: Trump’s betrayal by obfuscating EPA’s statutory principles to protect human health and our natural resources.

Brazenly, Pruitt endures at EPA because his ruthless deregulation agenda genuflects to the fossil fuel industry and permits big polluters to run amok. Behind the scenes, however, he and zealous lieutenants have taken critical steps to what Stephen Bannon, former White House chief strategist, called deconstruct the administrative state. Trump’s ideology claims regulations have thwarted economic growth and restricted America’s so-called energy abundance. As a result, this White House’s the war on public health continues.

At this writing, three Republican lawmakers have called for Pruitt to resign. “Major policy differences aside,” tweeted two-term Florida Representative Carlos Curbello, “@EPAScottPruitt‘s corruption scandals are an embarrassment to the Administration, and his conduct is grossly disrespectful to American taxpayers. It's time for him to resign or for @POTUS to dismiss him.” The other two GOP members include Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL).

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.

Mike Flynn, the EPA Deputy Regional Administrator and a career employee, announced his retirement this week. Guaranteeing that the tenure of an oil-inclined and gas-friendly EPA administrator remains, Trump nominated longtime coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, currently an energy attorney, to be EPA’s deputy administrator in October 2017. The Deputy Administrator role at EPA is imperative because he will take over if the Administrator must resign. The Senate never voted on Wheeler’s nomination, however, maybe not so coincidentally. Wheeler’s nomination is now moving again. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell filed for cloture to allow Wheeler’s choice to come to a vote NEXT week after Easter recess.

Like Pruitt, Wheeler is closely aligned with EPA’s “customer” coal companies, instead of the American people. He has also made a career of challenging environmental protections mean to protect communities’ clean air and clean water. Wheeler has filed countless lawsuits challenging public health and EPA’s authority and endangerment findings, for example, under the Clean Air Act. Wheeler previously worked on the staff of Senator James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, as chief counsel for the Senator on the Environment and Public Works committee. Disregarding science, he is allied with climate change deniers and was registered as a lobbyist for Murray Energy—the nation’s largest privately-owned coal company—just two months before his nomination. In that role, Wheeler lobbied for subsidies for the ailing coal industry, and advocated for the Trump administration to repeal the endangerment finding that requires the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. 

Wheeler’s nomination comes as EPA and Pruitt have not yet completed the withdrawal of the Clean Power Plan, designed to cut greenhouse gas emissions and assess climate change. If Wheeler is confirmed, coal companies and climate change deniers will have another partner in the EPA where he can continue to decimate environmental protections that Americans rely on to protect them. Comparable to Pruitt, Andrew Wheeler represents coal companies, not American families.

Meanwhile, the EPA Administrator’s plans to allow more contaminants to befoul water is proceeding swiftly. Pruitt’s desired repeal of the Clean Water Rule is currently caught up in the courts. However, in an internal memo leaked this week (that received little press attention), Pruitt revoked all the delegations allowing each of the 10 EPA Regions to determine whether those waters would be regulated under the Clean Water Act.

The memorandum discusses "geographic jurisdiction," in which the Agency determines whether bodies of water fall or do not under the Clean Water Act. Historically, all waters -- including major waterways, tributaries and wetlands—were regulated under the law. Its broad jurisdiction and authority were reaffirmed by the Waters of the U.S. rule promulgated in 2015. In the memo, Pruitt notified EPA staff that he would now oversee this decision making so he can allow the permitting by major polluting industries to have their way with our natural resource waters. The results would be devastating as the new order reduces the influence of EPA scientists and specialists working locally in regional offices who know those lakes and streams best.

Through all Pruitt’s recent ethical lapses, EPA continues its fossil fuel free-for-all pollution giveaway with the announced repeal of aggressive vehicle emissions standards. Signed into law by the Obama Administration in 2012, automakers were required to meet a fuel-efficiency average of 54.5 mpg (4.3 l/100 km) for cars by 2025, thereby limiting the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions measured at the vehicle tailpipe. Pruitt’s EPA is attacking its own standards as part of the midterm evaluation (MTE), a provision of the original law that requires an administrative and technical review before imposition of standards for vehicle model years 2022-2025. Some automakers backed away from EPA’s action, claiming they did not ask for relaxation of the original emissions standards. Now, fifteen attorneys general and the city of Chicago are suing the EPA for “ignoring its legal duty” to control methane emissions from oil and gas operations and other AG’s are litigating EPA’s reversal to regulate tailpipe pollution standards.

Pruitt’s assault on clean air risks our ability to safeguard children’s health, address climate change and save money at the gas tank. The plans to destroy the hard-fought protections safeguarding public health continue apace and will not be derailed because one person’s unfortunate inability to comply with ethical rules. It’s not really the “swamp” in Washington, DC that Trump wants to drain. He wants to drain all the real swamps, lakes and America’s lifeblood, its rivers, and replace them with revenue streams of pollution.

John J. O’Grady is the president of the American Federation of Government Employees National Council of EPA Locals #238, which represents over 9,000 bargaining unit employees at the EPA nationwide.