We have now endured almost a year with Scott Pruitt as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). His tenure is unprecedented—a full frontal assault on the agency he heads, and a retreat from the mission he is charged by law to advance. And thus far, Administrator Pruitt has not had to account for his actions.
But an accountability moment is nearing: for the first time since his nomination, Mr. Pruitt will appear before Congress to offer an update on the status of work at the agency—first before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on December 7, and next before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on January 31. These oversight hearings offer a critical opportunity for leaders on both sides of the aisle to ask tough questions, demand responsive information rather than platitudes, and voice their disapproval about how Administrator Pruitt has run the EPA.
Here are key topics for our elected representatives to focus on:
Mr. Pruitt’s empty “back to basics” promise
During his nomination hearing last January, Administrator Pruitt knew he would be questioned about his commitment to EPA’s mission and his repeated lawsuits against EPA when he served as Oklahoma’s attorney general. He came equipped with a clever counter-narrative. He claimed that he would make EPA a more effective agency by de-emphasizing “electives” such as climate change. He promised to steer the agency “back to basics” by focusing on core responsibilities such as enforcing clean air and water laws and cleaning hazardous waste sites.
Members of Congress should compare that promise to Administrator Pruitt’s actions over the past year. Almost immediately after taking office, he signed off on a budget that would cut EPA by 31 percent, despite the absence of any financial exigency requiring such draconian action. A few weeks later, he approved plans to lay off 25 percent of the agency’s employees and eliminate 56 programs. The proposed budget cuts target not only items Pruitt may think of as electives, but also basic bread-and-butter functions. For example, he proposed to strip $330 million from the $1.1 billion Superfund program and cut funding for the Justice Department to enforce cases.
And, in a clear contradiction of his testimony that he would work more cooperatively and effectively with state environmental protection agencies, he proposed to cut the grants that EPA gives to states for enforcement by 20 percent.
We are already starting to see the results of this effort to hollow EPA out from within. Experienced and talented career staff are leaving the agency in droves. The Chicago EPA office, for example, has already lost 61 employees “who account for more than 1,000 years of experience and represent nearly 6 percent of the EPA’s Region 5 staff, which coordinates the agency’s work in six states around the Great Lakes.” This means, among other things, a smaller number of inspectors and likely an increased number of businesses operating out of compliance with clean air and water laws.
With less staff and fewer experienced staff members, it is no surprise that EPA has seen a roughly 60 percent reduction in the penalties it has collected for environmental violations compared with the Obama, Bush, and Clinton administrations at comparable stages in their respective terms. And while the Obama administration cleaned up and de-listed 60 hazardous waste sites and added 142 sites over eight years, so far the EPA, under Mr. Pruitt, is far off that pace, deleting just two sites and adding only seven.
Perhaps most troubling, civil servants have been deeply demoralized by the combination of proposed cuts and constant statements by the president and Administrator Pruitt denigrating the agency as a job killer, which it is not. As one staffer said in a recent publication entitled EPA under Siege “I think there’s a general consensus among the career people that, at bottom, they’re basically trying to destroy the place.”
Said another: “Quite honestly, the core values of this administration are so divergent from my own, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity [for retirement]….I found it difficult to work for an agency with someone who is so disrespectful of what we do and why we do it.”
Members of Congress should question Mr. Pruitt about his “back to basics” promise. They should ask why he advocated for such deep budget cuts, layoffs, and buyouts, and demand that he explain with specificity how the agency can possibly do better with such drastically reduced resources. Congress should also require Mr. Pruitt to provide clear, apples-to-apples comparisons of the record of environmental enforcement during his tenure with that of his predecessors, as measured by inspections, notices of violation, corrective actions, fines and litigation.
Administrator Pruitt’s “Law and Order” charade
Administrator Pruitt put forth a second narrative during his confirmation hearing. He promised to restore “law and order” to EPA, claiming that the EPA had strayed beyond its statutory authority during President Obama’s tenure.
The record tells a very different story. In less than a year, Mr. Pruitt’s actions have repeatedly been found by courts to be “unlawful,” “arbitrary,” and “capricious.”
One example is particularly instructive. At the end of the Obama administration, the EPA issued a final rule requiring operators of new oil and gas wells to install controls to capture methane, a highly potent contributor to global warming. The rule was set to go into effect in early 2017. Administrator Pruitt unilaterally put the rule on hold for two years to allow EPA to conduct a sweeping reconsideration. This, the court found, was blatantly illegal, because it attempted to change the compliance date of a rule without going through the necessary rulemaking process.
Unfortunately, this tactic has become a pattern, as Mr. Pruitt has sought to put on hold many other regulations he doesn’t care for, including rules intended to reduce asthma-causing ozone pollution, toxic mercury contamination in water supplies, and a requirement that state transportation departments monitor greenhouse gas emission levels on national highways and set targets for reducing them. Environmental nonprofit organizations and state attorneys general have had to sue, or threaten to sue, to stop this illegal behavior.
The EPA’s lawlessness is not confined to official acts, but also concerns the administrator personally. In an obvious conflict of interest, Mr. Pruitt played a leading role in the EPA’s proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan, the nation’s first-ever limit on carbon dioxide pollution from power plants. Yet, just a few months before taking over at the EPA, Mr. Pruitt had led the legal fight against the rule as Oklahoma’s attorney general.
In effect, he played the role of advocate, then judge and jury, and ultimately executioner, all in a matter of a few months.
In addition, Administrator Pruitt is under investigation for misusing taxpayer dollars for $58,000 worth of private chartered flights, and has wasted $25,000 of taxpayer money to build himself a secret phone booth in his office.
Congress needs to ask Mr. Pruitt how he can be said to have restored respect for the law at the EPA, when the EPA (and perhaps Administrator Pruitt personally) have been flouting it. They need to ask him about what role he played in the proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan, and how he can square his conflicting loyalties to the state of Oklahoma (which he represented as an attorney) and to the American people (who he is supposed to represent as head of the EPA). Congress should also investigate his personal use of taxpayer funds and his penchant for cutting corners on legally mandated processes.
An “Alice in Wonderland” approach to science
The EPA’s five decades of success rest on its longstanding commitment to the best available science, and to its well-trained professional scientists who deploy that science. Administrator Pruitt has taken a wrecking ball to this scientific foundation.
First, he ignores staff scientists when their conclusions do not support his deregulation agenda. On the crucial scientific question of our time—climate change and what is causing it—Mr. Pruitt says he does not believe carbon dioxide is a primary cause. Of course, this statement runs directly counter to the conclusions of EPA scientists (as well as those of the recently issued US Global Change Research Program Climate Science Special Report). And, in one of his first policy decisions, Administrator Pruitt overturned EPA scientists’ recommendation to ban a pesticide (chlorpyrifos) that presents a clear health risk to farmers, children, and rural families.
But Mr. Pruitt is not only ignoring staff scientists, he is also sidelining and suppressing advice from highly credentialed and respected scientists who advise the EPA. Last summer, he sacked most of the members of the Board of Scientific Counselors, a committee of leading scientific experts that advises the EPA about newly emerging environmental threats and the best use of federal research dollars. And he has used this as an excuse to suspend the board’s work indefinitely.
More recently, he issued a new policy which states that a key outside Science Advisory Board will no longer include academic scientists who have received EPA grants in the past, under the purported theory that the grants render them less objective. Yet, Administrator Pruitt will fill these posts with industry scientists who are paid exclusively by industry, and with scientists who work for state governments that receive grants from the EPA. This new policy has enabled Mr. Pruitt to fill these boards with scientists who are clearly aligned with industry, scientists such as Michael Honeycutt, who has railed against EPA limits on soot and even testified before Congress that “some studies even suggest PM [particulate matter] makes you live longer.”
Administrator Pruitt’s attack on science also includes the EPA deleting vital information from agency websites. For example, the EPA has deleted key information about the Clean Power Plan, even though the agency is in the middle of a public comment process on whether to repeal that rule, and what to replace it with. The EPA has also eliminated information on the “social cost of carbon” and the record of its finding that the emission of greenhouse gases endangers public health.
These deletions seem designed to make it more difficult for the scientific community, and members of the public, to access the scientific information that stands in the way of Mr. Pruitt’s agenda.
Congress needs to probe deeply on these multiple ways that Administrator Pruitt has diminished the role of science at EPA. Representatives and senators should make him explain why he thinks he knows more about climate science and the harms of pesticides than his scientists do. They should demand that he explain why it is a conflict of interest for academic scientists who receive EPA grants to advise the EPA, but not for state and tribal scientists who receive these grants, or industry-paid scientists. And Congress must find out why so much valuable information about climate science, the social cost of carbon, and other matters have vanished from EPA websites.
Making the world safe for polluters
In December 2015, more than 190 countries, including the United States, approved an agreement in Paris to finally tackle the greatest challenge of our time—runaway climate change. Donald Trump pledged to pull the United States out of this agreement when he ran for office, but for six months into his term, he did not act on the pledge, and there was an internal debate within his administration.
Mr. Pruitt led the charge for the US withdrawal from that agreement. He has followed up on this by going after almost every single rule the Obama administration had put in place to cut global warming emissions. This includes the proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan, the “re-opening” of the current fuel economy standards that are now on target to roughly double cars’ fuel efficiency by 2025, the repeal of data gathering on methane emissions from oil and gas facilities, and tampering with how the EPA calculates the costs of carbon pollution, among many other actions.
But Administrator Pruitt’s rollback of safeguards is not limited to climate-related rules; it also includes cutting or undermining provisions that protect us all from more conventional pollutants. He has started the process of rescinding rules that limit power plants from discharging toxic metals such as arsenic, mercury and lead into public waterways; regulate the disposal of coal ash in waste pits near waterways; and improve safety at facilities housing dangerous chemicals.
The breadth and ferocity of these rollbacks is unprecedented. Congress needs to push back hard. For starters, representatives and senators need to demand that Mr. Pruitt explain how it fits within his job duties to lobby the president against one of the most important environmental protection agreements ever reached. Similarly, they need to highlight the impacts on human health and the environment from all of the rollbacks that Administrator Pruitt has initiated, and force him to explain how the EPA can be advancing its mission by lowering environmental standards.
Congressional oversight is needed now more than ever
Many aspects of Mr. Pruitt’s tenure are truly unprecedented. However, he’s not the first EPA administrator to display fundamental disrespect for the agency’s mission. As one legal scholar has noted, during the Reagan administration there were “pervasive” congressional concerns that former Administrator Anne Gorsuch and other political appointees at the agency “were entering into ‘sweetheart deals’ with industry, manipulating programs for partisan political ends, and crippling the agency through requests for budget reductions.”
Congressional oversight back then was potent: among other things, Congress demanded that the EPA hand over documents about the apparently lax enforcement of the Superfund law requiring cleanups of hazardous waste sites. When the EPA head refused to comply with those demands, Congress held Administrator Gorsuch in contempt. Senators, including Republicans such as Robert Stafford and Lincoln Chaffee, publicly voiced their alarm. Eventually, President Reagan decided Ms. Gorsuch was a liability, and he replaced her with William Ruckelshaus, EPA’s first administrator under President Nixon, and a well-respected moderate who stabilized the agency.
These oversight efforts were “the decisive factor in causing Ms. Gorsuch, as well as most of the other political appointees at the agency, to resign.”
It may be too much to expect that the current, polarized Congress will exhibit the same level of tough, bipartisan oversight it did in the Reagan era. Yet, bipartisan support for vigorous environmental protection remains strong today and some Republican leaders have already called upon Administrator Pruitt to step down. It is high time for Congress to do what it can to ensure that Mr. Pruitt’s EPA does not continue to put the interests of a few industries ahead of the clean air, water, and lands that the agency is mandated to protect.