Let's Fix This Country
governing

Taking Protection Out of Environmental Protection


Scott Pruitt has strong religious convictions, according to his pastor in home town Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, where he was a deacon and taught Sunday school. In Washington he has been known to attend Bible study sessions with like-minded government officials.

How that explains his policies as Trump's administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) comes clear when he talks about Biblical principles, as on a road trip in Iowa with a National Review writer taking notes:

"One side says we exist to serve creation. The other side says creation is there for us to use and manage to the benefit of mankind…If you are on the side that says we exist to serve creation, then you have no trouble putting up a fence and saying 'Do Not Use'. Even though people may starve, may freeze…and I think that's wrongheaded".

It is not clear why Pruitt considers the Obama years' regulations he is in the process of overturning as starving or freezing people, but he is referring to the Biblical question of stewardship or dominion — whether as the dominant species it is humanity's responsibility to care for the planet and its creatures, or whether the resources of Earth have been put here by God for mankind to exploit. For Pruitt it's the latter.

Repeal and replace

That would include reviving the extraction of coal from the earth by executing the president's promise to coal miners to eradicate Obama's Clean Power Plan, which called for the states to adopt emission controls that would threaten coal-fired power plants. "The Clean Power Plan would have forced states to scramble to alter their electric-power mix, shutting down coal plants long before the end of their useful life", said the Wall Street Journal. In fact, the states had plenty of notice, and 51% of the U.S.'s electricity generating capacity was built before 1980, and with an average life of 40 years are at the edge of retirement, according to the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.

But Trump had vowed to “get rid” of Obama-era environmental regulations, calling the power plan “stupid” and “job killing,” and in a March executive order directed Pruitt to unwind the rule.

"The war on coal is over"

So announced Pruitt in October, appropriately in Hazard, Kentucky, the day before signing the repeal proposal. Before that, Trump told a crowd in Alabama, “Did you see what I did to that? Boom, gone.”

In fact, Clean Power never began. In 2015 the Supreme Court blocked the rule, wanting the courts to first work their way through the lawsuits challenging it from two dozen states before allowing it to take effect. In the meantime, overturning it is not as simple as a signature on an executive order. To be reversed, a completed regulation must go through an arduous process similar to that which led to its creation.

Pruitt may heed advice that replacing it with a reduced measure is the better course than outright repeal if lawsuits to retain the Clean Power Plan are to be avoided. They would have in their favor the "endangerment finding", an EPA ruling in 2009 that found that six greenhouse gases (GHGs) — coal plant emitted carbon dioxide among them — are a threat to public health, a ruling that compels the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases. Get rid of that ruling and "the rest of the climate change regulations just sweep themselves away", says JunkScience, a website that argues against climate change. "But if they don't get rid of it, the environmentalists can sue…". Pruitt would have a tough time getting rid of it; the ruling is strong, deriving from a 2007 Supreme Court decision that GHGs are a pollutant subject to regulation.

In any case, unraveling the Clean Power Plan will take years, and in the meantime market forces such as the replacement of coal with natural gas may do its bidding absent regulation.

unfixing

Acting on an executive order from Trump in February, Pruitt at the end of June formally proposed revoking Obama's Clean Water Rule, also known as the Waters of the United States rule, or WOTUS. Angering industries of all stripes, it greatly expanded the government's environmental jurisdiction over waterways to include even small streams and the land that feeds into them, whereas "navigable" waterways was the criterion under the original Clean Water Act. No longer could industry dump refuse into stream beds, given that they feed into creeks, then streams, then rivers and lakes, or sink into acquifers, and ultimately into drinking water.

When he visited Detroit, the president pledged a government review of the Obama administration fuel efficiency standards. In August the EPA together with the Transportation Department opened the public comment period as the first step to reduce the target of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. The figure is a composite for sedans, SUVs, and pickups. For so high an efficiency average to be reached relies on a heavy percentage of those vehicles being electric and using no gallons at all. But the low price of gasoline has led to people buying less electric and more SUVs and pickups, a trend that if continued will make the target impossible to reach. Critics say the standards are self-defeating; the technology makes vehicles more expensive which encourages people to hang onto their gas guzzlers.

delay and derail

Where Pruitt is having a more immediate effect is in the many ways he is delaying actions and altering the staffing of the agency. The EPA has scientists who sit on review boards helping to develop policy based on research. By June, Pruitt had sent notices to dozens telling them their terms would not be renewed. (Ryan Zinke at the Interior Department has done the same, sending some 200 packing). He has gone on to cut the boards in half; part of Trump's instruction was to cut back the main scientific branch 40%.

Pruitt has banned from the boards scientists who had been receiving grants from the EPA itself, evidently thinking the grants caused them to rubberstamp EPA's progressive policies. "Our focus should be sound science, not political science", he said. But he is expected to appoint representatives from industry to take their place, people "who understand the impact of regulations on the regulated community", said a spokesperson, and there's been no mention of any restrictions to prevent them from promoting regulations that may benefit their businesses.

These steps fit with Pruitt's mission at the outset. He had been an unfailing champion of oil and gas interests, benefiting from more than $300,000 in contributions to his elections from PACs or employees of the industry. He had filed 14 lawsuits against the EPA; co-parties in the suits had contributed to his campaigns. He had become notorious for transferring almost verbatim letters written by industry lobbyists onto the state letterhead and sending them to agencies and even President Obama arguing for regulation rollbacks.

climate change?

As for climate science, Pruitt is not convinced that carbon dioxide from human activity is the main driver of climate change. To assess the question of whether CO2 is a harmful pollutant subject to regulation, he would like to defer to Congress, where he is assured of finding so many who know nothing of the science. He calls the climate change debate “far from settled” and had some 1900 pages on climate change and related topics removed from the EPA website. He commissioned a company to ferret out who in the agency was e-mailing about climate change. He initiated a search to weed out all EPA grants to scientists that contain that "double-C word".

His approach is to conduct blue team vs. red team debates, pitting scientists who are convinced by knowledge acquired over decades that humans contribute to global warming against those who disagree. This has the legions from the former camp in an uproar because it confers an implicit parity on the far smaller group of skeptics, as if to start the argument all over again.

Morale at the agency has plummeted. They have seen Pruitt nominate Andrew Wheeler, a lobbyist for the Appalachian coal company Murray Energy, to be the deputy administrator of EPA. He's proposed Kathleen Hartnett White, former chair of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to be the chair of the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality; she calls global warming "a kind of paganism", calls carbon dioxide "the gas of life", writes in favor of increasing the use of fossil fuels, is opposed by some 300 climate scientists. William Wehrum, someone with a "deep doctrinal dislike of clean air regulations" in the view of a New York Times editorial, was tapped to be Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation. Michael Dourson was nixed by the Senate, but Pruitt picked him, long a consultant to chemical companies where he maintained that exposure to compounds he was evaluating was safe at levels far more dangerous to public health than levels recommended by EPA.

Mr. Pruitt has drawn heavily from the staff of fellow Oklahoman and Senator James Inhofe, famous for declaring global warming a hoax. He has been bringing in an EPA leadership deliberately at odds with the career officials, scientists and employees and the mission expressed in the agency's name. Some 700 have left.

That fits in nicely with Pruitt's plans for the agency that Trump had vowed to eliminate "in almost every form". The budget for 2018 slashes over $5.6 billion, a cut of 30%, and Pruitt's goal is to cashier 20% of its staff of 15,000.

reverse gear

Under Pruitt, the agency is aggressively working counter to its mission by holding up Obama-era regulations largely without the input of the career employees at EPA, say senior staff members.

 Methane is a greenhouse gas some 30 times more potent in its entrapment of heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Just as in Oklahoma, where along with state attorneys general from other fossil fuel producing states Pruitt sued to block the EPA’s announced regulations to curtail methane emissions, so did he once at the agency seek to delay compliance with that rule, postponing it for two years. Pruitt ordered a stop even to the collection of data on methane gas emissions from oil and gas wells. He had been urged by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to take this step in a letter signed by 11 other state attorneys general. “I personally handed him the letter, and the next day the rule was personally withdrawn,” Mr. Paxton said in wonderment. The agency’s career scientists and legal experts were not consulted.

In May, the Senate voted 51 to 49 to retain the methane emission control rule — the only regulation that survived Trump's executive orders that rescinded regulations put forth in Obama's final days. In July a federal appeals court ruled the EPA must enforce implementation of the methane rule.

 Pruitt gave Pebble Limited Partnership the green light to file a new application for a permit for an open-pit mine that Obama had blocked. It will extract copper, gold and silver on Alaska's Bristol Bay, which puts at risk one of the world's most productive salmon fisheries, the primary home of the sockeye salmon. Local sentiment runs 80% against the mine, and 62% statewide oppose it.

 Pruitt fought it in Oklahoma, and now has delayed for 20 months an Obama administration regulation to make information about dangerous chemicals at plants more easily available to the public and first responders for their safety.

 He delayed the date by which companies must comply with a rule to prevent explosions and spills at chemical plants.

 The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ordered EPA to update its standards for levels of lead in paint and dust, unchanged for 17 years despite new research on its hazards to children's mental acuity. The Trump administration had requested six years to reconsider what levels of lead exposure are safe. The court gave the agency 90 days.

chemistry

Named for the New Jersey senator who had long fought for an overhaul of the loophole-ridden toxic substances laws, Congress passed the Lautenberg Chemical Safety For The 21st Century Act with a voice vote in the Senate and a 403 to 12 vote in the House. It's a clear directive to the EPA to better protect the public.

 Yet Pruitt will indefinitely postpone bans on two toxic chemicals that have caused dozens of deaths — metyhylene chloride and trichloroethylene — and a third — methylpyrrolidone — used in paint strippers.

 Nancy Beck was brought in as a top deputy in EPA's chemical unit, bringing on board the view of the American Chemistry Council, the industry's principal trade association, where she had been an executive the previous five years. She has doctorate in environmental health, yet re-wrote a rule to make it harder to track the health consequences of perfluorooctanioic acid (PFOA). Used in stain resistant carpets and no-stick pans, it is associated with kidney cancer, birth defects, and immune system disorders. For such chemicals she came up with the phrase "phantom risks".

 More conspicuously, days after taking office, Pruitt denied a 10-year-old petition from environmental groups that sought a complete ban on the pesticide chlorpyrifos. Despite a court having previously admonished the agency for its "egregious" delay in acting on the petition, Pruitt said his agency has postponed a final determination until 2022.

Chlorpyrifos has been linked to neural damage, lower IQs, ADHD, and autism in children. But Mr. Pruitt said there “continue to be considerable areas of uncertainty” about the pesticide's effects on infants. It has been banned from household use for 20 years, but is sprayed on 50 types of crops — berries, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, apples, and peaches among them. In the weeks before denying the petition, a FOIA request uncovered that Pruitt had promised farm executives it would be "a new day, a new future for a common sense approach to environmental protection".

Chlorpyrifos manufacturer Dow Chemical says, “No pest control product has been more thoroughly evaluated, with more than 4,000 studies and reports examining chlorpyrifos in terms of health, safety and environment”. In stark contrast, the EPA could not find any safe level of exposure. Dow gave $1 million to Donald Trump's campaign.

controversy

Insiders at EPA say that, especially at the beginning of his tenure, Pruitt met constantly with top corporate executives and lobbyists from industries that the agency regulates, but held virtually no meetings with environmental, consumer or public health advocates, attested to by a 320-page accounting of his daily schedule from February through May. Rather than work with the career professionals at EPA, fearful perhaps that they would only work against him, he outsources work to lawyers and lobbyists and to the Republican states' attorneys general he had worked with when he was back in Oklahoma as its attorney general.

Apart from policy, Pruitt has raised eyebrows. Doors to his floor at EPA headquarters are frequently locked. Employees need an escort to gain access. He requisitioned a 10-person round-the-clock security detail. Those meeting with him are told to leave cell phones behind and are not permitted to take notes. For his own phone calls, he spent $25,000 of EPA money on a soundproof communications booth for his office, then tripled the cost by adding custom modifications that prevent any data leaks or eavesdropping.

There are the frequent, government-funded trips to Oklahoma for only perfunctory business meetings. The EPA's inspector general has begun a probe into these trips for which Pruitt has at times used noncommercial and military aircraft. What's the justification? Pruitt is not a Congress member, needful of connecting to the constituency he or she represents. He is a cabinet secretary running an agency of thousands of employees in Washington D.C. If industry needs to meet with him, they should make the trip to Washington, and on their dime.

The agency exhibits a siege mentality. When a Times reporter sent a detailed list of questions, EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman came back with,

“No matter how much information we give you, you would never write a fair piece. The only thing inappropriate and biased is your continued fixation on writing elitist clickbait trying to attack qualified professionals committed to serving their country.”

All of which paranoia is not so untoward considering Mr. Pruitt is working against the ethos of the agency and the mindset of those who chose to work there.

in a hurry

Mr. Pruitt is a man with ambition. He is spoken of as secretly aiming at the governorship of Oklahoma. But just as this is written, with rumors swirling that Jeff Sessions will be pressed to resign, Politico says he has told friends of his interest in becoming the attorney general — of the U.S. this time. If he made that switch, President Trump would be hard put to find anyone so zealous about eviscerating EPA. Maybe Ryan Zinke?

1 Comment for “Taking Protection Out of Environmental Protection”

  1. Tony White

    Rather than focusing on the President’s twitter messages and bizarre behavior, the media should be providing detailed information like this article on Pruitt’s reversal of the EPA’s mission and attacks on environmental protections which guarantee the safety of our air and water and a habitable future.

    Let’s Fix This Country provides this kind of detailed research and journalism on major issues which is often lacking in the mainstream media and without which our system of democracy continues to struggle.

Leave a Reply to Tony White

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