On February 17, mere days after his home state of Oklahoma sweltered through February temperatures that reached into the upper 90s, climate change denier Scott Pruitt was confirmed by the Senate as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The final vote was 52-46 and split nearly along party lines. In light of Pruitt’s anti-environment and anti-science views, Defenders of Wildlife denounced the confirmation as “reckless and grossly irresponsible.”
The confirmation vote proceeded despite clear indications of Pruitt’s potential conflicts of interest. On the eve of the Senate’s confirmation vote, an Oklahoma judge ruled that Scott Pruitt had violated the state’s Open Records Act by failing to release thousands of emails and other documents that could shed light on his interactions with fossil fuel companies during his tenure as the state’s attorney general. The judge set a deadline of February 21 for release of the emails and February 26 for the remainder of the correspondence. Democratic Senators staged an all-night protest, seeking to postpone the confirmation vote to allow for a fuller examination of Pruitt’s ties with the industries he would be charged with regulating. Unfortunately, Senate Leader McConnell “chose not to” delay Mr. Pruitt’s confirmation vote.
Some 6,000 pages of emails in question were released several days late and, as many expected, they reveal that Pruitt “closely coordinated with major oil and gas producers, electric utilities and political groups with ties to the libertarian billionaire brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch to roll back environmental regulations” while he was Oklahoma’s attorney general. Groups funded by fossil fuel producers went so far as to send Pruitt draft language to use in his fights against greenhouse gas emissions reduction efforts, ozone restrictions, and regulations on chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing. The entity Mr. Pruitt was battling with all this help from industry was, of course, the Environmental Protection Agency, which he now leads. The released documents further revealed the Pruitt had committed the previously unpardonable political sin of conducting official business using a private email account, despite denying having done so during his confirmation hearings.
These email follies would be nothing but supreme political irony if Mr. Pruitt were otherwise inspiring confidence that he and this administration were committed to the EPA’s mission of protecting the clear air, clean water and livable climate that people and wildlife depend on. Unfortunately, all indications are the opposite: one of Mr. Pruitt’s first acts as administrator was to delay implementation of a rule that would require mining companies to prove that they have the financial resources to clean up after themselves, instead of sticking taxpayers with the bill.
We also learned last week that the president’s newly unveiled budget proposal would slash the EPA’s budget by 25 percent and eliminate one-fifth of its staff, redirecting that $2 billion towards his proposed $54 billion increase in defense spending. President Trump also signed an executive order directing the EPA to eliminate a regulation protecting small water bodies from pollution, while falsely claiming that the rule costs hundreds of thousands of jobs per year. This rule, called “Waters of the U.S.” or WOTUS for short, recognized that what gets dumped into small streams doesn’t stay in small streams: sewage, manure, pesticides and other pollutants get carried downstream to larger streams and rivers, damaging aquatic habitats as well as our sources of drinking water. Unfortunately, homebuilders, golf course operators and farmers felt inconvenienced by the rule and had sued to halt it. One of the state officials leading those lawsuits was none other than Scott Pruitt, who has, unsurprisingly, promised quick action by the EPA to make it easier to dump pollution into our streams.
As bad as all this is, we are still waiting for the other shoe to drop: there is every indication that President Trump is still planning to sign an executive order directing the EPA to uproot the keystone in President Obama’s climate legacy, the Clean Power Plan. We expect that with industry’s best friend at the head of the agency, the EPA will be only too happy to comply. And those of us who care about protecting our communities and wildlife from the ravages of climate change will fight them every step of the way.