When Scott Pruitt was selected by President Donald Trump as the 14th administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the outcry was predictable from clean energy advocates and groups fighting climate change. Here was a man who had made a national name for himself as the Oklahoma Attorney General who sued the EPA 13 different times in 5 years in an effort to strike down Obama-era regulations intended to protect the nation’s air and water from pollution, with a LinkedIn page referring to himself as a “leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.” Pruitt, once installed as head of the EPA, refused to link human-caused carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to climate change, telling CNBC that “I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.”
So again, it was no surprise that Pruitt became a frequent and pointed target of the green energy community. In the year and a half that he’s sat at the helm of the EPA, that focused criticism of Pruitt has kept him in the headlines on a regular basis for all the wrong reasons. While the Pruitt-led EPA has already performed many actions that have had and will continue to have real and detrimental effects on the clean energy industry and the environment at large, much of the focus of the onslaught on Pruitt has centered on his administrative misdeeds– overspending, impropriety with regards to industry lobbyists, and scandal after scandal. These controversies are what have Pruitt in hot water, not his policy decisions that are undoing the progress that the United States was making in the clean energy and climate spaces. Nonetheless, the pressure Pruitt is feeling is intensifying, with two subcommittees in the House calling on his to testify on the EPA budget on April 26, though many questions will certainly focus on the five investigations into his conduct. Further, in a Trump administration that is trying to manage and minimize scandals as they pop up, White House officials are reportedly dismayed about the storm hanging over their EPA administrator (publicly, President Trump continues to back Pruitt, though some speculate Trump mostly wants to keep Pruitt around to eventually replace Jeff Sessions as Attorney General).
Despite Trump’s support, pressure is growing for Pruitt’s ouster from both sides of the political spectrum and an increasing number of Republicans and Democrats are seeing it as an inevitability that Pruitt will likely be out the door sooner rather than later. The supporters of clean and renewable energy might celebrate this departure as great progress and a return to normalcy, while Republicans lawmakers would likely just breathe a sigh of relief that one of the lightning rods of scandal within the administration has been excised. Thus, these two sides would be celebrating the same outcome but for different reasons. While the Republican relief would be understandable and even appropriate, there is a risk that the celebration of the green energy community would be short-sighted.
Pruitt might be the face of the Trump EPA and the scapegoat for what has become of the EPA over the last year and a half, but everything he has implemented is coming from the top down from a President who has notedly called climate change a Chinese hoax and at one point in his campaign advocated the elimination of the EPA. The removal of Pruitt will not undo the damage that has been done, and, so long as direction is coming from the Trump White House, the installation of a new EPA administrator is unlikely to result in a new direction. Pruitt will be replaced with another Trump nominee and, despite any political posturing from those in Congress, it is likely that whoever that is will also be able to squeak through the approval process. While it would be a different story if the departure of Pruitt and nomination of a replacement didn’t happen until after the November midterm elections that might see the Democrats gain control of the legislature, the train of backlash against Pruitt is barreling down at such a rapid pace that it’s hard to imagine a new EPA administrator nominee won’t be testifying in front of Congress at some point during the next six months.
The point in bringing this all up is not to be a downer to the clean energy cause, as having Pruitt removed as the head of the EPA is certainly important to the communities pushing for clean energy and action to fight climate change. However, these advocates must not celebrate the inevitable Pruitt departure too much, as the more effective focus should turn to the meat of the actual policy issues. In fact, while the burners are being turned up on Pruitt, these supporters of clean energy and climate action should also keep a simultaneous spotlight on the damaging acts that have occurred in Pruitt’s EPA tenure and by the larger Trump administration and seek to find tangible ways to continue to fight those policies. In that vein, this article will highlight actions the Trump administration (both through Pruitt and through other executive actions) have taken with regards to energy and identify where the real fight needs to be.
Scott’s hot seat
First, though, it is also important to quickly identify the improper behavior as EPA administrator (policy aside) that has gotten Pruitt into this situation. The specific allegations about Pruitt’s conduct include the following:
- Spending $43,000 to purchase a soundproof booth in Pruitt’s EPA office, exceeding the $5,000 limit on office improvements before which Congress must be notified
- Authorizing large raises to two close aides after the White House denied the request for said raises
- Frequent and very expensive travel practices (including the use of private planes and military jets in lieu of commercial air travel), funded by taxes, for himself and his wife for non-EPA purposes, including security details for personal trips to Disneyland and the Rose Bowl
- Sidelining and/or demoting career EPA employees who raised ethical concerns on how Pruitt was spending EPA funds
- Living for six months, and paying below market rate, in a condo owned by a lobbyist whose husband was an EPA lobbyist
- Using multiple email addresses and using phones other than his own for official business in order to prevent the communications from showing up in logs when public records are requested
Pruitt’s actions at the EPA, and what can be done about them now
While the above ethical controversies are likely what you’re hearing tied to Pruitt in the headlines when his potential removal is discussed, the following are the actual policy-related actions Pruitt has taken as the head of the EPA. These actions should be kept at the forefront of any discussion, as their effects will persist moving forward long after Pruitt is gone unless they receive the appropriate attention and public outcry for their reversal.
Helped push Trump to leave the Paris climate accord
Among the most consequential actions of the early Trump administration with regards to clean energy and the climate was the announced intention to exit the Paris Climate Accord. This decision left the United States as the only country in the world to express intention to not be a part of the agreement to reduce CO2 emissions by the amount needed to limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius or less. EPA administrator Pruitt was one of the leading voices in President Trump’s ear on the topic, urging the need to leave the international agreement, counteracting Trump’s then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, daughter Ivanka Trump, and son-in-law Jared Kushner who had all previously been making headway in convincing the President to stick with the Paris climate accord. In the wake of Trump’s decision to reject the global climate pact, Pruitt was made one of the faces of the decision by standing at the podium announcing the decision with the President and answering questions on the decision at the subsequent White House news briefing.
While the decision to leave the Paris climate accord was dismaying to the global community fighting climate change, it is also one of the decisions that energy and environmental advocates can continue to push the administration on now, continuing that push once Pruitt eventually leaves the EPA. First, Trump has only started the process to leave the agreement, but under the terms of the Paris climate accord the United States cannot actually withdraw until November 2020. So President Trump can reverse course and rejoin the agreement, which is a possibility Trump has entertained in conversations with foreign leaders. In the meantime, hundreds of city governments and dozens of state governments, companies, and universities have committed to meet the requirements of the Paris climate accord even if the federal government does not officially sign on. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has even written a $4.5 million check to cover the funding gap created when the United States withdrew from the accord. These are the types of actions that make all the difference in the immediate term, with pressuring the Trump administration to reverse course and rejoin the Paris climate accord before 2020 being the end game. Whether or not Pruitt is the EPA administrator is not important towards these actions, and his ouster alone will not be enough to get the United States back in the climate accord.
Initiated the revoking of the Clean Power Plan
In late 2017, the EPA opened for public comment the question of how to replace the Clean Power Plan (CPP), which effectively kicked off the intended repeal of the Obama-era policy that would require the national electricity sector to reduce emissions to 32% below 2005 levels by 2030. The CPP was the hallmark of President Obama’s energy policy and was largely seen as the most significant action the United States had ever taken to make a real change in the energy sector in order to fight climate change. The CPP was both practical in its ability to limit the CO2-emitting power plants that could be built in the future and symbolic in showing how serious the United States was to meeting its commitment to climate action. As with the Paris climate accord, the leadership in the wake of the federal repeal has fallen to states and cities, as well as large corporations like Apple, to individually continue the commitment to limit CO2 emissions from the energy industry. As of today, the EPA has simply started the process of replacing the CPP, but the long regulatory process must still unfold. Regardless of whether Pruitt is still the EPA administrator does not matter, as this action will continue with or without him at the directive of the White House. As such, it is crucial for the goals of the clean energy and climate advocacy communities to keep pressuring the government to protect the CPP (see this recent blog post from the Environmental Defense Fund on how the public can continue to do just that).
Rolled back fuel economy standards for new vehicles
Among the most recent of EPA’s impactful decisions under Pruitt was the rejection of an Obama-era plan to increase the efficiency of automobiles. Under attack specifically were the standards for average fuel efficiency of cars sold in model years 2022 to 2025 which called for fleet efficiency to roughly double to 50 miles per gallon by 2025 (not every car needs to meet the standard, rather the requirements are for the average of all new vehicles sold, which allows for a portion of vehicles sold to be less efficient than the standard as long as they are balanced out by more efficient vehicles also sold). These regulations were lauded by proponents as helping drive innovation in clean technologies and are largely responsible for cars being as efficient as they are today.
Automakers in the past would often fight the implementation of such regulations, but again and again they ultimately met and exceeded the standards through improved fuel-efficient technology, sales of hybrid and electric cars, increased gasoline prices pushing consumer demand more towards efficient vehicles, and the use of a credit system that allowed automakers to earn efficiency credit for future years when they exceeded the standards in past years (for more information, read this great Scientific American article for a summary of why automakers always seem to exceed the set standards despite the feet dragging about how the regulations are too strict). The benefits of these fuel economy standards include not only the limiting of climate-changing CO2 emissions, but also the reduction in overall domestic oil consumption, an increase in jobs in vehicle manufacturing, and overall consumer savings.
The recent EPA announcement of the rollback of regulations for 2022 to 2025 vehicles also came with the suggestion that California’s waiver that allows the state to set stricter fuel efficiency standards (which also get adopted by 13 other states that partner with California) than federal standards could be rescinded, which would amplify the effects of this action on the climate and overall oil consumption. Where the repeal of the CPP might be less impactful because electric companies are increasingly expressing their intent to meet CPP targets anyway, the relaxation of fuel economy standards nationally and the removal of California’s power to set higher standards would undoubtedly prompt automakers to sell a less efficient fleet than they would have otherwise. The legal battle with California is just beginning and the relaxed fuel efficiency standards wouldn’t come into effect for several years, so again there is opportunity for the clean energy and climate advocacy groups to fight these decisions today. Even if Pruitt were relieved of his EPA duties tomorrow, that does not mean the fight would be over. In order to prevent a national backslide that would stall the great progress in vehicle efficiencies, the public can make this an issue now and make their voices heard, which will be needed regardless of who is at the head of the EPA.
Other environmental rollbacks
The previously listed actions are just the high-profile acts with regards to the universe of energy. According to NJ.com, Pruitt has rolled back almost 50 environmental regulations in all, regulations that scientists contend are necessary for the preservation of public health. These regulatory rollbacks include the suspension of the Clean Water Rule, the removal of almost 200 toxins from regulation under the Clean Air Act, the ban of a pesticide that is shown to cause neurodevelopmental deficits in children, and more. As with the others, all of these environmental rollbacks will continue should Pruitt be removed from his post– so any celebration should be short-lived as environmental advocates instead focus on undoing the actual policy changes.
What will change going forward?
The issue when it comes to the energy policies moving forward is that Pruitt was not a lone actor. Rather, Pruitt was specifically chosen because his vision lined up with the rest of the Trump administration when it comes to these issues. The EPA was not the only place where such actions were taking place. Trump and the Department of Energy have multiple times attempted to provide financial backing to coal and nuclear plants that analysis shows is unnecessary, Congress has moved to open up the federally protected Alaska National Wildlife Reserve for oil and gas drilling, Trump has insisted on so-called ‘clean coal’ being the fuel of choice for the future, the White House has made moves to open all U.S. waters to deep water drilling for oil and gas, and more. These examples only serve to highlight some of the other energy-related actions taken across the Trump administration completely outside of the EPA– they have nothing to do with Pruitt, and thus his removal would have no effect on their direction. Just like working to fight the EPA actions that came under Pruitt, these actions also need to be fought for there to be any change other than a ceremonial replacement at the head of an agency.
The point is that if clean energy and climate advocates want to see real change then they need to keep the pressure on. The removal of Pruitt from the EPA, whenever that might happen, is obviously an important step. But it is also important to stress that he would be theoretically removed for his ethical transgressions and nothing related to his environmentally damaging or climate change ignoring energy policies. The communities pushing for clean energy, action on climate change, and environmental justice must stay focused on the bigger picture outside of Pruitt himself and the controversies associated with him. The other energy actions of the Trump administration show that if Pruitt can be replaced with someone who is identical to Pruitt on policy but can keep his or her nose clean, then that is the direction they would go with his successor. When the bar has been set so low by Pruitt, his successor cannot be lauded for merely stepping over that bar. Instead of celebrating the change of EPA administrator too much, it is more important to focus on the issues and raise the bar back higher, requiring that sound energy and environmental policy is used as the true measuring stick of success at the EPA.
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If you’re interested in other in discussions of energy policy, see this post on the decision to sell oil from the Strategic Oil Preserve to make up a funding gap, this post on the opening of the Alaska National Wildlife Reserve to oil and gas drilling, and this assessment of how energy conservation standards are being changed under the Trump administration.
Sources and additional reading
A Brief History of U.S. Fuel Efficiency Standards: Union of Concerned Scientists
Don’t overlook Scott Pruitt’s real damage: NJ.com
Embattled EPA chief Scott Pruitt faces public grilling this week as GOP support erodes: CNBC
EPA Chief Pruitt Refuses to Link CO2 and Global Warming: Scientific American
EPA chief Scott Pruitt’s long list of controversies: CNN Politics
EPA to relax fuel efficiency standards for autos: Reuters
EPA’s Pruitt basks in Trump glow after Paris pullout: Politico
EPA’s Pruitt under spending probe; senators urge his ouster: Reuters
How Do You Celebrate Earth Day When Scott Pruitt Is Still At The E.P.A.? The New Yorker
Scott Pruitt calls for an ‘exit’ from the Paris accord, sharpening the Trump White House’s climate rift: The Washington Post
Scott Pruitt Has Sued The Environmental Protection Agency 13 Times. Now He Wants To Lead It: Huffington Post
The Clean Power Plan: A Climate Game Changer: Union of Concerned Scientists
There are alarm bells at the White House amid the latest controversy involving Trump’s EPA chief: Business Insider
Trump Says He Will Cut The EPA as Prez: ‘We’ll Be Fine With The Environment’: Talking Points Memo
Trump’s EPA Starts Process for Replacing Clean Power Plan: Inside Climate News
What Is the Clean Power Plan, and How Can Trump Repeal It? The New York Times
Why Automakers Keep Beating Government Standards: Scientific American
Why EPA’s Effort to Weaken Fuel Efficiency Standards Could be Trump’s Most Climate-Damaging Move Yet: Inside Climate News
About the author: Matt Chester is an energy analyst in Washington DC, studied engineering and science & technology policy at the University of Virginia, and operates this blog and website to share news, insights, and advice in the fields of energy policy, energy technology, and more. For more quick hits in addition to posts on this blog, follow him on Twitter @ChesterEnergy.